Review: Until Death by The Haque Collective

A room with office-white curtains, with a black sofa seat without a backrest on the left and a black sofa with a backrest on the left. The room is bright. The image is split down the centre with the partially-visible ultrasound image of a baby. A brown man in black shirt and trousers, with a goatee and black hair, and a sombre expression sits on the left, while a Chinese lady wearing a black dress in a low pony-tail sits on the left, with the same serious expression.
Photo: Method Productions

(Warning: major spoilers ahead)

Grief.

(I feel like I’ve already said this, and started a story, in this same way somewhere else, at some distant point in the past. I probably have.)

It’s a hard thing to process, and I think we are constantly processing it, for it never truly lets go of us.

It’s strange that I talk about grief as a thing that we learn to manage, and slowly learn to live with, but in my view, I think it’s more of learning how to not let grief manage us so much, to not let it control us so much, to not let it dictate what we do, to not let it…

And yet, I also understand (as the character Nick D’Cruz did eventually) that sometimes, it’s not a choice to “allow” it to affect us less.

How thin, exactly, is the line between us having the power to control (or to allow) what grief does to us and that of us not having any power over it at all?

That, I think, was the central focus of this Haque Collective production.

It was the same friend with whom I watched Dancing With Fish in the Midnight Zone that I watched Until Death with, and who also half-jokingly remarked to me, “eh, why everything we watch also about grief one ah?”

I catch myself more and more often thinking that emotions, like many other obstacles in life, can be processed, broken down, and “solved” like a Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) Math problem sum. But Tarun Satyakumar’s portrayal of Nick D’Cruz, and his continued altercations with Kimberly Kiew’s character of Chiara Tan Gek Kim, reminded me that this was exactly the problem with how some of us deal with grief.

We think that it can be shaped, that it is malleable, that it can be placed into a box and faced/confronted/dealt with whenever we want.

The truth is, the age-old analogy that another friend once described to me is probably more true of grief. Like a ball that bounces around a confined box (with the box signifying us as people), grief sometimes bounces around and hits a button which we call “hurt”. And that’s when we can’t control how we feel about it.

Over time, the ball becomes smaller, and hits the button less often. That’s what we call “learning to live with grief”.

But it never truly goes away.

Much like how Until Death reminded me that a structured 7-step approach towards the nebulous process that is grief is often not possible in the face of overwhelming loss and hurt, it reminded me that sometimes, it’s not possible to reflect on things in a structured, PEEL, essay-style either.

Stage X: Acting (or “Theatre”)

The husband-wife pairing of Satyakumar and Kimberly (yes, I can call her that in review-language because I know her. Shoot me.) as Nick and Chiara was masterful yet heart-wrenching. As always, I am in awe of the nuances and spectrum of human-life experiences that Kimberly brings to the stage in every production I have had the fortune to see her in. We feel Chiara’s grief at losing her child, her frustration at Nick’s lack of emotional support for her, even the tinge of wistfulness nearing the end when both separated almost-parents meet again at Chaira’s place, and especially the unsaid feelings that pass between both even as they part ways.

Though at times it seemed as if the passing of time which accounts for the time Nick has spent in therapy is not felt enough by the audience, the nuances of his character are more evident nearing the end of the show, where we see in his more measured and caring responses to Chiara that he has truly spent time understanding the flaws in his responses during the aftermath of their stillborn child.

True to the programme booklet’s Director’s Message, “Don’t be alarmed to find actors changing onstage or in plain view of the audience as well. The intention is to include you as much as we can in the alchemy of telling stories.” (emphasis my own)

And, as my friend also commented, the care (and time spent sitting with the characters as real-life people) shown by the actors and the entire creative team reveals itself in how a Epilogue was included post-show to give audience members who couldn’t bear to part with the characters a brief, if not much-needed, closure to the story. The Epilogue even covers minor characters who appeared briefly, such as Nick’s client Sophie De La Croix and his boss, Petra Anson.

Niharika Iyengar’s portrayal of Priya Mallya, Chiara’s best friend, also felt timely and well-placed, especially in her various roles as Chiara’s pillar of support and her confidante. The screaming of “If you hang from that swing, I’ll hang you” at her children in-between talking to Chiara about her response towards Nick gave the audience a good laugh, as well as an essential break from the heaviness of being witnesses to the process of Nick and Chiara’s separation.

Stage Y: Production (or “Management”)

I didn’t have much thoughts about set, lighting, and sound, upon first thinking about the production. Which, to me, I found strange, as someone working in production/stage management.

Was that a good thing, or bad? I don’t know.

What I do know was the verisimilitude of life which the set elements contributed to, in building the world and sound-/story-/landscape of Nick and Chiara’s world. With the simple yet multitude of set pieces transported from the Haque Center of Acting and Creativity’s (HCAC) studio, we are made to believe that we are truly in the bar where Nick meets Sophie, we are truly witnesses to the fights of Nick and Chiara in their lovingly curated home, and we are there mourning, together with Nick, Chiara and Joseph (Nick’s dad) everytime they visit the columbarium. Little wonder, then, that we are left feeling a sense of resolution (and perhaps a little relief) at Chiara’s final scene of being at peace enough to wish Leo a happy second birthday.

Curtain Call: Concluding Thoughts

Was I too generous in praising a company whom I’ve worked with before simply on the basis that I feel a deep and familial connection to the community?

Hmm. I don’t think so.

Am I wrong? Probably.

But there were things that I might have included. Trigger warnings for the mention of grief and the loss of an unborn child maybe. And probably trigger warnings for the strobe lights in the bar and at the Fragment room.

And I wasn’t as moved (emotionally) by this show as I maybe was by some others. But writing this comes with a realisation for me as well:

just because a show or an issue doesn’t trigger heavy, burdensome feelings (or even just an emotional response) from us doesn’t mean that it didn’t affect us. That it can’t prompt us to reflect, about the human experience. And it doesn’t mean it was a “bad” show, however flippantly we use that term.

Ultimately, Until Death gives us another glimpse into one of grief’s many forms: that it can be transient, yet always there, liminal, yet fixed (for a while, at least), and that we are always learning to co-exist with it, as a rent-free tenant within our lives.

(UNTIL DEATH was a production by Method Productions & The Haque Collective. Method Productions is the production arm of the HCAC family, an acting school that caters to all ages and people in various stages of life, including daytime working professionals. HCAC focuses on a variety of acting techniques, especially Lee Strasberg’s acclaimed Method Acting, and conducts both introductory lessons to the performing arts as well as lessons more suitable to those wishing for a springboard into more specialised acting schools. The Haque Collective [THC] is the alumni theatre company of HCAC.)

(UNTIL DEATH ran from 11–14 November 2021 at the Stamford Arts Centre. It depicted the loves and loss felt in how soon-to-be parents deal with the loss of an unborn child, and the post-trauma responses to a miscarriage. For more information on the production, cast, and crew, visit the Method Productions website here. The Programme Booklet can be viewed here.)

A stage manager-in-progress, who only wants to be within lights, sounds, and sets and begin writing.