With a sparse set design by Chun Kaifeng consisting of a larger than life door frame, sofa and bicycle frozen in memory, Risa (played by Ellison Tan Yuyang) clasps her hands together and says: I Am Trying To Say Something True though admitting lying is one of her best skill sets. 28 years old and jobless, she is swallowed up by the overwhelming spaciousness of the Esplanade Theatre Studio – a still image of unspoken loss and the distance between all the things she wishes to say.
The theatre space, with its sparse set pieces, remains ambiguous with lighting designer Genevieve Peck‘s play on light and shadow, together with sound designer and music composer Bani Haykal‘s everyday noises fleeting in and out of hearing through speakers placed by the sides. Curious, I wonder if this is a depiction of the battles she has to fight externally and within herself – going hand in hand together, unable to tell them apart. As the play progresses, it seems that director T. Sasitharan would like to keep that ambiguity and this choice worked in favour of the production – together with apparent directing choices of playing with levels, distance and the occupying of stage space.
I Am Trying To Say Something True is written by playwright Michelle Tan and a part of Esplanade’s The Studios 2018. Swept off her feet by a sudden whirlwind of events, Risa finds herself struggling and tries to come to terms with all the conflicts she thought she had buried. An unflinching account of God, therapy and grief, the script strings words seamlessly together to weave as accurate a portrayal of the complex journey undertaken.
In its pursuit for raw honesty, I find it refreshing for the script to confront that tension between supposedly opposing beliefs on love head-on without forcing the audience to pick a side. The portrayal of suffering and the incessant questioning of concepts too great to fathom holds great power in presenting her circumstances as they are – the way she knows how – and leaving the audience to listen, and empathise if they would like to. I particularly enjoy the mental tug-of-war verbalised through the breaking of voice coupled with tensed movements. However, it is not all doom and gloom. Self-deprecating humour and outright sarcasm tickle the audience into laughter – allowing Risa to live true to her name (which means laughter in Spanish).
With the inherent strength and emotional weight already captured through the subtlety of words, the other elements of the stage fade into the background. However, actress Ellison Tan holds her own, bringing the musicality of the words and its poetry to life. Her ease and generosity in sharing with the audience forthcoming. I have to admit that I felt the accumulating heartbreak and in the shared space of the theatre, I daresay many others also shed tears; thoroughly moved by the honest performance.
I Am Trying To Say Something True is the play you never knew you needed, in all its beauty of vulnerability and the emergence of new hope from old wounds. It is an emotional journey that is unapologetic and anything but comfortable, but oh so truthful.
Originally written for Popspoken.
Photography credit: Crispian Chan, courtesy of Esplanade