By Dr Alvin Ng
“They are just jealous because we are special” – Emily Spikerman
The term “otak tak centre” may come across as derogatory to some people. But even when you say it nicely, for example, ‘psychological disorder’, it still means the same thing, and looked upon with the same prejudice. Mental illness has immense negative stigma even if it is very much a part of our daily life. I should know, I am a clinical psychologist1. Being a mental health professional, I personally have no qualms about the title – it reflects the reality of the matter.
And Otak Tak Centre manages to show us some of that reality. Adapted and translated by Reza Zainal Abidin from Haresh Sharma’s play Off Centre, the play was first staged in Singapore in 1993, and was part of the Singapore Ministry of Health’s efforts to bring public awareness to issues regarding mental illness. This Malaysian version, directed by Lim How Ngean, addresses the topic in English and Bahasa Malaysia, and is presently being staged at the Panggung Bandaraya.
This play looks at the lives of two former psychiatric patients: Vinod, (Kubhaer T. Jethawani) diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder (previously called manic depression), and Saloma (Mislina Mustaffa), a schizophrenic. The play begins even before it actually starts, with Vinod, a Mussolini-esque character, appearing through a side door and welcoming audiences in a manic state, chattering loudly and non-stop, hurrying people to be seated for the show. This, I feel, is a good introduction to bipolar affective disorder, where the depression is masked by mania.
The story tells of Vinod apparently trying to cheer Saloma up. Both eventually become good friends, sharing their daily experiences and supporting each other, meeting in coffeeshops and playgrounds. Saloma, being the quiet and less educated one, usually ends up being lectured on by the bright, eloquent and imaginative Vinod, about how to handle their condition, and how to give each other mutual support (song dedications on Era!). While Vinod confronts the negative stigma imposed on him at military school and university, Saloma struggles with seeking self-empowerment and gaining the acceptance from her toxic mother (Azean Irdawaty), who is in denial, and who tells her daughter that taking the medicines will make her worse.
Along the way, the airy-fairy and delusional but tragic Emily Spikerman (Bernie Chan) appears to empower Saloma with motivational self-talk, while reading her soul and declaring that she is suci. The play has many funny moments that somehow overshadow the seriousness of the matter presented. Being in the mental health field, I feel perhaps that some issues are serious enough not to be laughed at. However, Emily (which I think is a very nice name) deals a subtle balance between light-heartedness and drumming in the serious impact of mental illness.
As the play continues, Vinod goes from being manic to being depressed, with an angst-ridden sense of hopelessness, even rejecting Saloma when she wants to be more ‘centre’. Kudos to Kubhaer and Mislina for bringing out bipolar and schizophrenic symptoms in such a realistic manner. Azean gives a rousing performance as Saloma’s mother, whom through my experience, typifies many parents of people living with mental illnesses, especially those with schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder. I’m not really sure where to place Dato’ Rahim Razali, but he has a commanding presence as Razali, the guard on duty around the playground area, as well as a fatherly figure in Saloma’s life.
Jessica Ong and Shahredza Minhat play supporting roles as Vinod’s college mates, Denise and Charlie. They have stigma and fear written all across their faces when trying to be friendly to him. Both come across as fake (not the acting, but their friendship), and probably have some psychological problems of their own too (so who is actually ‘tak centre’?). Both Jessica and Shahredza also have different roles, as Mrs. Wong, who fired Vinod from work, and Azman, a young and mentally-challenged pervert who is after Saloma. Megat Shahrizal Yusoff is less than convincing as Vinod’s protocol commander in the military.
Two thumbs up also to the production team, especially director, Lim How Ngean, for their passion about the subject of mental illness. This compelling play raises very pertinent issues regarding mental illness, from medication compliance (mommy, your daughter needs her medication!), to cross-cultural misconceptions of mental illness, to social isolation and dysfunction.
One significant point raised well in the dialogue between Vinod and Saloma is the label of being “tak centre”, suggesting an illusion that other people are mentally balanced, and not them. This reinforces their perception of their own illness, leading to their identification with each other and isolation from the rest of the world.
People usually regard madness as the losing of one’s mind or self. This play demonstrated the contrary as both lead characters showed that their selves were very much the focus: “I am unwanted”, “I am crazy”, “I am tak centre”, “I cannot work”, “I cannot study”, etc. These statements are also very telling. They are the words of someone whose sense of self is under threat. And this is what sometimes contributes to dysfunction.
This is a convincing portrayal of the self being very much intact in people with mental illness. This self is much taken for granted by authorities who “treat” mental illnesses. Often in Malaysia and also elsewhere, people diagnosed with mental illness are treated based on textbooks, with no regard to their real selves or their personal concerns, making the management of their illnesses very impersonal. I am proud that Khubaer and Mislina manage to bring out the humanity within mental illness, showing how much mental illness itself is a threat to a person’s sense of self. And how much it is the self that we need to heal.
The play worked also very well as a bilingual production. That fact that both leads portrayed characters from different cultures and still managed to come together despite their illnesses was very heartening.
Otak Tak Centre is dramalab’s first production for 2004 that is part of their commitment to encourage theatregoers to think about social issues. I feel that dramalab has achieved this goal. Never mind some glitches in the flow of the play, or the occasionally mediocre acting by one or two supporting actors, Otak Tak Centre brings out very pertinent issues that affect people living with mental illness as well as their families, friends and the rest of society. The pain, the stigma and the misconceptions about people labelled with psychological disorders are well reflected in this production. Kubhaer and Mislina show us the trials and tribulations their characters go through as they try to gain acceptance, love and functionality.
It’s a pity that such a production did not receive financial and promotional support from relevant agencies, as it is a good platform to educate and enhance awareness of mental health issues such as social implications, financial security, education and employment opportunities, as well as familial problems. It was thus, pretty disappointing to see only about 50% turnout at Panggung Bandaraya on opening night (with half of that being complimentary tickets). I would strongly encourage everyone to watch this play, especially ministers, teachers, health workers and health policy makers.
At the end of the day, regardless of having a mental disorder or not, acceptance is still the key to quality of life. By learning more about each other, we are more likely to be accepting of each other and better able to help each other.
Footnote: 1: Clinical psychologists are non-medical professionals who assess, diagnose, treat and prevent mental illnesses, as well as other psychological, emotional, behavioural and learning problems. They deal with these problems using evidence-based psychological methods, either as a primary form of treatment or as an adjunct to medical and other forms of health treatments.
First Published: 08.06.2004 on Kakiseni