Actor, Forty

by Haresh Sharma
translated by Quah Sy Ren
The Necessary Stage
Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts 2017
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

What lies at the intersection of personal life and professional success? Does an actor who has built up a career playing a multitude of roles find it any easier to take on the real-life role of a mother? These are some of the questions posed by Haresh Sharma's probing 75-minute monologue, a commission for Huayi 2017 performed by award-winning film, screen and stage actress Yeo Yann Yan.

Yeo plays a forty-year-old, once-famous actress who is obsessing about her comeback role in a film called 'Woman, Forty' where she will star as a forty-year-old heroine who juggles work and family commitments. Shortly before filming commences, she discovers herself pregnant. Amidst a flurry of media activity and rehearsals, she tries to keep this a secret, going through a period of soul-searching before she finally learns to accept her situation.

Photo Credit: Ruey Loon, Esplanade

Sharma and director Alvin Tan are no stranger to the monologue format and Actor, Forty follows in the footsteps of previous productions such as Best Of and the recently-revived Rosnah which uses a single character to expound on a range of powerful themes affecting society. In crafting his narrative, Sharma draws heavily from Yeo's two decades of experience as a versatile, globe-trotting actor, all the while dealing with universal issues such as growing older and coming to terms with one's identity.

It is a testament to Yeo that the monologue feels utterly organic. She turns in an energetic, funny and deeply moving performance that never leaves us in any doubt of her star power. As she steps in and out of costumes and deals with countless work engagements, she tells us candidly about her life growing up in an almost entirely Chinese community in Malaysia before moving to Singapore at the age of twenty. We are taken on a whirlwind tour of the character's career highlights including fielding difficult questions from the media, playing iconic villains on television and starring in sultry shampoo commercials. Yeo is especially earnest as she describes her meaningful working relationship with the late Yasmin Ahmad and Kuo Pao Kun, directors who taught her the true meaning of embracing multiculturalim.

Tan keeps the pacing tight by creating a constant sense of movement as Yeo slips, almost breathlessly, from role to role with the aid of two capable assistants. Kok Heng Leun's spacious set forms part dressing room, part film set and part apartment, suggesting an admixture of the personal and professional that is increasingly difficult to separate. For all the people Yeo's character encounters, one gets the sense that she ultimately leads a lonely life where she has been forced to deal with problems on her own. When tragedy strikes, she learns to overcome her anger and to quietly move on with grace.

Photo Credit: Ruey Loon, Esplanade

Yeo's scenes prove highly captivating to watch and fans will relish getting a tremendous bang for their buck. Yet, the fact remains that in this art-imitating-life construct, there are times when Yeo the effervescent, shape-shifting actress risks robbing the emotional journey of her character. Are we drawn to the real life of the actress or her immensely more colourful fictional universe?

As the first production of The Necessary Stage's 30th anniversary season, Actor, Forty is an apt celebration of the company's roots in intercultural theatre. This happens to be the first collaboration between Tan and Sharma that has premiered in Mandarin and kudos to  the production team - particularly Melissa Lim as dramaturg and Quah Sy Ren as translator - for tapping on linguistic and cultural nuances to bring a rich Chinese heritage to the production. Quah's translation is both entertaining and heartfelt, faithful to the clean lines of Sharma's text while playing to Yeo's strengths and exploring variations of accent, dialect and colloquialisms to craft a more endearing and authentic character.

Just as life for a woman does not stop at the age of forty, the life of an actress extends far beyond the confines of the stage. Actor, Forty is a reminder of the many roles we play in life and how we owe it to ourselves to take each one in our stride.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

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