Is privacy always a price one has to pay for security and preventive purposes? And if so, who has the right to say whose privacy should be sacrificed for the ‘greater good’? Supervision by playwright Thomas Lim goes right into the heart of the issue through the lens of Jenny (Janice Koh), a working parent who hires an Indonesian domestic helper Yanti (Umi Kalthum Ismail) to care for her retired father Teck (Patrick Teoh) after he suffered a stroke.
Straightforward in premise, the play itself is anything but simple. Lim’s writing delivers the nuances of the trio’s relationship through their interactions with each other.
One moment Jenny is the one in control, giving Yanti strict guidelines on how to care for her father and threatening to fire her if anything goes wrong. In the next, Yanti is the figure who comforts Teck when his old age makes him question his own future – contrasting his prickly demeanour when he coerces Yanti into getting him the unhealthy foods Jenny banned.
The characters are fleshed out well – each with their own fair share of vulnerability on display, yet with enough fight in them to avoid a typical sob story trajectory. Drawing the drama from the ordinary scenes we ourselves as audience may find familiar.
Balancing the emotional tension without losing sight on the discussion of supervision and dignity throughout the play, the actors bring the text to life. You will be surprised how many persons I know came into my mind when the dialogues were going on. One poignant scene is when Jenny finally falls apart, speaking her mind to the father she loves – the tiredness of trying to meet his needs, the responsibilities on her shoulder and her well-meaning intentions that are unappreciated. And Teck, once again, quietly looking out the window with a face of disappointment and a realisation of the burden weighing heavily on his own shoulders. Then Yanti, out of sight and a scapegoat in this misfiring of love and care between father and daughter.
It is almost too familiar for comfort – and this is where the play succeeds. It urges the audience to take responsibility and have a stake in this discussion that is playing out in front of us.
The set design by Wong Chee Wai enhances the act of voyeurism done by us audience members. Porous walls around the various spaces in the home, even for the washroom and the bedrooms, we see everything. Perhaps throughout the whole show, the audience is the most guilty of supervising the characters – our eyes on them even when they are changing out of their outfits.
Light design by Tai Zi Feng guides our eyes through the home successfully, with black outs serving as ‘blindspots’ in camera lingo, since audience are seated on all four sides of the stage – all based covered and seen by multiple pairs of eyes. An additional layer to what multimedia designer Andrew Ngand Koo Chia Meng is going for with their camera footage and the films played?
All these technical aspects make me question about the framing of the narrative and how, perhaps, we always see what we want to see. A juxtaposition of watching film, where the camera frames the scene and dictates what the audience takes away visually, while for theatre, we see almost everything – dependent on our seat and what we deem is most important to us.
At the end of the play, I find myself empathising with every one of them. There is no right or wrong, as with every aspect of life. This is a layered experience, with all the elements of the stage working towards a show that will leave an impact on the subject matter of monitoring others and if trust is not enough in today’s world.
If there is one show you are hoping to catch this year for the Singapore Theatre Festival, let Supervision be the one. Thought-provoking and relevant to Singapore, with the rise in domestic helpers working here, invite yourself to be part of this discussion and leave with new perspectives gained from the other voices we don’t always get to pay attention to.
Originally written for Popspoken.