There is a sweet story at the heart of Off Centre, the iconic 1993 play about living with mental illness.
The original leads, Abdulattif Abdullah and Sakinah Dollah, met and married each other, thanks to the production created by The Necessary Stage.
Now, they reprise their roles as the depressive Vinod and schizophrenic Saloma in the Feb 7 to 17 restaging of the play at Victoria Theatre.
But playwright Haresh Sharma and director Alvin Tan also point out a bitter truth – that the issues Off Centre raised about integrating those with mental-health issues into mainstream society have yet to be fully addressed.
“There is more support now, but the discrimination and stigma remain the same. People find it difficult to find a job,” says Tan.
The play is an O-level English literature text for those taking examinations this year and in 2020. This year’s staging also includes actors Brendon Fernandez, Nicholas Bloodworth, Ellison Tan, Farez Najid, Sindhura Kalidas and Joshua Lim, as well as Aidli Mosbit and Najib Soiman (both cast in the 2007 restaging of Off Centre).
“Last time, the production was minimal. Now, we can afford to have a proper crowd for some of the scenes,” says director Tan, wryly referring to the fact that the 1993 staging of Off Centre lost a $30,000 grant from its original commissioner, the Ministry of Health, because the script was deemed unacceptable.
BOOK IT / OFF CENTRE
WHERE: Victoria Theatre, 9 Empress Place
WHEN: Feb 7 to 17, 8pm (Wednesdays to Fridays); 3 and 8pm (Saturdays); 3pm (Sundays)
ADMISSION: $45 and $36 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)
Officials were concerned about the play presenting “a prejudiced view of mental disorder, its treatability and the therapists, besides ridiculing God, religion and national service”, according to a statement released in 1993 by the then Ministry of Information and the Arts.
Official disapproval was a huge emotional and financial blow for the young theatre group.
“We were rehearsing and crying,” Sharma recalls. “Then on opening night, people queued to meet Saloma (who ends the play).”
The public reception to Off Centre was overwhelmingly positive. Critics praised the play for its maturity and sensitivity, while the then-director of the Counselling and Care Centre wrote in a letter to The Straits Times: “I wish this play could be staged again to reach out to a wider audience. It is one of the best plays I have watched in the last few years of theatre in Singapore.”
In 1994, a shortened version of Off Centre was restaged for the first Mental Health Awareness Week, organised by the Singapore Association for Mental Health and the National Council of Social Service.
In 2006, Off Centre became the first Singaporean play to be studied as an O-and N-level text. (The Necessary Stage restaged the play in 2007, with Melvinder Kanth and Mislina Mustaffa in the lead roles.)
Abdulattif, 51, who is also known as Lattifand is an educator in a local secondary school, became a minor celebrity with literature students. “Even before I spoke to them, they asked: ‘Was that you, Mr Lattif?'”
He and 47-year-old Sakinah are both educators – she heads a kindergarten. They have four children aged 12 to 24 and left the theatre world when their first child was born.
Invited to The Necessary Stage’s 30th-anniversary celebrations last year, they asked whether it might be possible to re-create the magic of 26 years ago.
The answer was a resounding yes.
As director Tan says: “They co-created the characters. It was very difficult for me to restage Off Centre – it was hard to get over them.”
To create the characters of Vinod and Saloma, Sharma interviewed residents of halfway houses and the former Woodbridge Hospital. Lattif and Sakinah met several sufferers as well, and had to shop and open a bank account in character.
For this restaging, both went in character to McDonald’s – and people stared and murmured their discomfort.
As an educator, Lattif has seen students struggle with depression and mental-health issues. He says: “Mental illness is actually quite normal, but we continue to be not sufficiently educated about what kind of support is needed.”
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