Directed by Jeremy Ooi
15 – 19 March 2017, DPAC
Reviewed by SAMANTHA CHEH
Remedy is a moving exposition on the nature of therapy, nuanced in its detail and sharp in its deconstruction of therapy as an experience. Produced by EJA Productions in partnership with Relate Malaysia, the play tells the story of Michael, a beleaguered auditor who attends a therapy session in order to find a way to deal with the tangle of emotions that have come to characterise his days and weigh upon his mind.
EJA Productions has produced a beautifully choreographed piece of theatre, moving in and out of discourse and movement, reflecting its devised nature. One gets the sense that Remedy is sometimes more dance than play. The script is simple, but moving – it’s not going to be winning Pulitzers any time soon, but the writer has managed to capture something of the everyday in the words of Michael, his therapist and the ensemble at large.
Remedy’s true achievement lies in its ability to provide us with not just a model but a concretisation of an otherwise abstract experience. Therapy is a notoriously difficult experience to understand, what more convey to people who don’t live inside our heads. It is intensely personal, and thus the experience can be intensely isolating. The triumph of the production is its skill in giving the experience of attending therapy a shape, a form and a name. This aspect is lovingly conveyed in every part of the production, but most clearly in a section where our protagonist tries to express his tangled thought processes. Here the ensemble marches round and round the stage like a factory line ever moving forward, as Michael physically attempts to disrupt their progress, failing each time.
Though at its heart Remedy’s plot is solid, the actors are its ballast and highlights. Alfred Loh’s portrayal of Michael manages to exhibit a kind of heedless vulnerability that most actors would struggle with, despite the character’s initial blandness. The ensemble – featuring Amanda Ang, Sandee Chew, Arief Hamizan, Esther Liew, and Nabil Zakaria – worked in brilliant tandem with Loh, providing context with which to examine the roots of Michael’s problems.
The production directly speaks to the ties between psychological exertion and physical exhaustion and manifests it visually to engage the external audience with personal, unseen battles. That in itself makes Remedy a beautiful defense against the stigma surrounding mental health. Mental health is commonly treated as an issue trapped within the fact of an individual and there this notion that, you know, all your problems will go away if you just “try harder” and dose yourself with Mary Poppins-esque can-do-isms. This is most exemplified in the form of a sequence of aphorisms by Michael’s mother who stands high – and therefore stands out – in a spotlight: “Try harder!” “Go after the job that will give you a higher salary!” “Always aim for the top!”
Perhaps the cleverest aspect of the production is its ability to blend the past and present into a single state of experience, as well as its willingness to allow the past to interfere and influence the present—it all comes together for a truthful representation of therapy and its effects. Michael frequently recounts events in the past such as passive aggressive household arguments regarding his father’s constant absence. With each retelling his understanding in the present moment grows, and consecutive events yield to Michael’s growing self-awareness.
This is most evident in the sequence featuring Michael’s mother, played to exquisite perfection by Amanda Ang. Ang’s portrayal of Michael’s aunty-ish mother with big aspirations and bigger relationship problems is constructed with careful attention down to the smallest inflection of the voice. The production’s attention to the past is ever more evident when the telescope of the play is thrown wide open to include context and thus, pain. The pressure his mother puts on Michael is couched in her own hurt at her husband’s failure and its effects on their lives. The mother sequence is replayed with more detail and Ang’s performance deepens in complexity. “Try harder” is followed by “Don’t be like your father.” The incorporation of his parents’ arguments leads into a redux of events, as if reality has been made clearer, more concrete.
One of the ensemble’s integral functions in the play is showing that the self is divisible, and, more pertinently, divided against the essential self. The self is everyone you have ever meant anything to – friend, parent, or undefinable but overwhelming emotion – and this is beautifully characterised in the opening sequence. Michael—our hero and the ostensible everyman character—runs through a sequence of waking and working, of process and repetition, and with every day that passes, a burden is added in the form of a cast member dangling off him.
Perhaps what is most moving about this scene is not the numerous bodies he picks up along the way but the monotony of his very existence. Unremarkable everyday movements and interactions are thrown around his shoulders, slung about his waist and borne in his arms, a slowly accumulating burden. The things we unconsciously carry weigh on us like physical weights, dampening our movements.
But we are also reminded of the banality of such problems contrasted against the cultural alienness of therapy. Therapy is frequently demonised as a function of a broken self, a cure-all, a remedy. But it is the simple act of living a life, as Michael does in his auditing job, which draws out the need for relief, not any kind of cataclysmic trauma. We realise that mental health does not need to be the result of any kind of great, unnatural trauma or an incurable disease that impairs us. It’s the regular trauma that we bear from a young age that is inescapable in its normality, and so the play reveals the problems of viewing therapy as beyond our common experience. In doing so, Remedy makes a radical claim about therapy and its necessary origins in the everyday: anyone can need therapy, and that too is perfectly normal.
Photos by Justin Wong