When I heard that Ian Nathaniel’s I’M ENTERTAINMENT was doing an exhibit style production on mental health, I thought, “That sounds like a Duality ripoff.” Not that I didn’t like Duality – it had an interesting take on sexuality with a rather interesting concept, and I’m all for more newer forms of theatre- it’s just that i just did not trust this production to be able to pull it off well by giving justice to the content it was presenting.
And I was right!
According to the show’s event description, THE HUMAN EXHIBIT: MENTAL HEALTH is “like a fine art gallery, but with people instead.
‘The Human Exhibit’ is one journey that the audience will take to watch different representations of certain mental illnesses. Instead of looking at paintings/sculptures, there will be a human representation of the mental illness in the form of dance, spoken word, dialogue, scene, movement, etc.”
Basically, the audience goes into the space and is led by a guide, an SPM student Sarah (played by Nabilah Hamid) who’s apparently exhibiting her SPM project; where she’ll take you around studio Twenty20Two and visit each act in an organized manner. The performances are a variety of dialogues, monologues, dance, physical movement, and spoken word poetry that represented a range of mental illnesses,
The show is also a part of the Instagram and Facebook movement DEAR MENTAL HEALTH(#DEARMENTALHEALTH), making the exhibit’s aim as “to raise awareness for mental health and to abolish the stigma”. However, if I may interject, did not turn out successful as a production or as a campaign.
Here are my reasons:
The disorders touched on shallow water
Most of the acts seemed as if they glazed over the surface of the general perception of mental illnesses, making the content rather messy and lacking a focus. The production collaborated with Relate Malaysia (an organization that functions to raise awareness on mental health), so I’m sure the production team had received extensive notes and interview sources from their partnering organizing.
However, the content presented in most of the acts felt like the directors just took from the notes what they felt was cool, or fun to perform, as opposed to representing the nuances in the play.
I’m sure most of us know the physical symptoms of anorexia and bulimia nervosa (we learned that in Pemakanan Seimbang Sains Tingkatan 2, if y’all care to remember), but what do these people actually feel?
I came to the show expecting to learn what a bulimic victim feels like when having to stick their fingers down their throats every day. What I got instead, was just fingers sticking and an unexplainable blowjob. This feels somewhat against THEM’s aim of “abolishing stigma”, as they are sticking to it themselves.
The actors did not do much homework
As I was saying, I felt like I paid RM35 to watch a play on the general description of these illnesses on stage, which I could have simply gained by searching them on the net. What’s anxiety? Let’s run around in circles and blurt out all my worries.
What’s bipolar disorder? Let’s have 2 actors – one who’s super hyper, and one who’s super negative talk about their week. What’s alcohol dependencies? Let’s throw all these beer bottles on the floor. Where are all the real-life stories convey more than a Google description?
Timmy Ong’s and Nik Waheeda’s bipolar piece, for example, had a good potential. A nice little peek into the life of a bipolar, but despite both actors being experienced, the message and feel just did not come through.
Again, I’m all for new people trying out new things. But when you do new things you are not too good at, do it minimally. The nature of THEM requires the actors to touch base with very sensitive, very deep mental issues. Their inability to do so, made some of the pieces seem rather comical. Someone in my cycle snickered many times throughout the show. Why? – Because THEM tried to be cool, rather than be honest.
That person who snickered? He will continue viewing mental health with a stigma.
The content was too abstract
Most of the pieces were scripted in poems. Now, I love poetry. But my problem with this is that if you are trying to educate and create awareness, why do you make things extra difficult by scripting the show in poems? Why???
Some of the poems are easy to take in, but some, too poetic. Azam Rais’s piece where he was topless, for example. A shame, because his performance was well done, except that his words touched me less than his tears did. What I got from his story is that he committed suicide in a car accident and is depressed about death (?). And now he wants to remind us that light is everywhere, and please grab your light before it is too late. Wow, I’m so enlightened.
There were also many things unexplained in the show, such as: Why is there a blowjob in the anorexia act? Why is the alcoholic lady perched up against the wall at the beginning of her act? Maybe these are parts of the effects of these illnesses, important parts, but too bad, I will never get to find out. I guess we can say they did one thing right – the show is like an art exhibition.
Because I went in and didn’t understand a thing.
The show was uncomfortable for the wrong reasons
At the beginning of the show, we were briefed* about how if we get disturbed by anything in the act, that we are to say the safe word, “Bubbles”, and we will be escorted out, and there are therapists outside to make sure we are okay. I wanted to yell BUBBLES from the first scene itself because it was just uncomfortable. We had to stand a lot, and it was as if they planned for us to be this close to the act so that we can “feel more”. Trying a little too hard, maybe?
And My God, why is Sarah a schizo? Making the guide herself mentally ill just made the whole ride kinda weird. It feels more like a mental health haunted house because rather than let the audience be disturbed by the content itself, the show tried making us uncomfortable with the close proximity, and the weird smell, and the shock value. Ugh.
Now, you may read this review and think, “Joyah is a dumb blonde who does not understand anything.” No, Joyah is just a little angry, because Joyah watched Ho Lee Ching’s OCD and thought it was brilliant. Read Dailyseni’s review of OCD here. In fact, it was probably the best theatre play Joyah had ever seen, period. And for the exact opposite reasons to THEM, OCD was:
- Focused. It wasn’t just about anyone with OCD. It was especially about the woman who married an OCD husband, about the girl with OCD who annoys all her friends, about the sister with OCD who hears murderous voices.
- Complete. I always thought OCD was just a craze for organization and cleanliness. But Ching’s OCD shed light on other spectrums of OCD, such as hearing voices, the constant need to catch up on information, etc.
- Believable. I believed each of the actors, so much so I assume Ching cast them because they have OCD.
- Relatable. Marriage, cleanliness, siblinghood, movies. We all can relate to that.
- Does not try too hard. I sat in the last row of Pentas 2 when I watched OCD. Yet, I felt everything.
Having said all this, there is another reason THEM was awesome and is the one reason I would have asked everyone to watch it. The reason is Nana.
Nana, a well-known poet and was last seen in Ridhwan Saidi’s Teater Modular 2 and theatrethreesixty’s Malaysia Throws Herself a Birthday Party, performed her piece astoundingly at THEM. I will not spoil it for you (because if you missed it, boooooo), but Nana totally bared it all in her piece on gender dysphoria. Done in Malay, her poem about growing up wanting to be a masculine figure was fetching and rather haunting.
She made us sit on the floor, and watch the act which was set in the broom closet of the studio, stripping all our attention to her movement, her charisma, and her naked emotions. Acting along was her husband, Riz Gil Hamzah, whose quiet, obedient movements depicted the couple’s power equal relationship in a way words cannot explain. To quote Ridhwan Saidi, “Ia transgresif dan puitis sekali gus.” (It is transgresive and at the same time, poetic.)
I know many theatre actors, and although Nana may not be one, she’s got a run for all your money. Nana, you just increased your street cred by 100 points right there.
All in all, it is great that so many theatre productions are jumping on the awareness bandwagon with good intentions at heart. Many of the pieces had great set up – the bipolar room and the borderline personality disorder brain set, for example. But, did we really raise any awareness at all? We definitely raised awareness on the accessibility of experimental theatre, so, kudos.
Overall experience: 2/5
All photos taken from The Human Exhibit: Mental Health Facebook event page.
*The reviewer mistakenly cited the person doing the briefing for the play