Sleeping Naked by In Source Theatre
2 September show at the Black Box, Centre 42
Review by Jeremy Lee
In Source Theatre’s latest play, Sleeping Naked, is a doozy if there ever was one.
Stony (Michael Cheng), a spiritualist, seeks purity at all costs, and the play does its best to convince us of that with lengthy monologues where he describes his ideals and how he wants to emulate late Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, who slept naked with women to test his ability to withstand temptation.
He provides spiritual guidance to people, and aims to open an ashram one day. His beliefs aren’t tied to a single religion, however; he aspires to be Gandhi, who is Hindu, yet also talks about Adam and Eve from the Christian Bible and mentions the Tao Te Jing, a fundamental Taoist text.
But no matter. Stony's fatal flaw, one that makes him an unsympathetic character, is that he is so obsessed with his quest that he is blind to how it is affecting his nearest and dearest.
For it is the story of how Stony's family unravels under his nose that is the more engrossing one, not his spiritual quest.
Cheng plays the spiritual man adequately, but shines when he efforts his doting and tender side in the scenes with daughter Leng Leng (Eng Kai-Er), the duo sharing a playful chemistry.
However, their very touchy-feely relationship becomes queasy for viewers when it is established very early on that the father and daughter are sleeping naked with each other in some perverse Gandhi-like test for him.
That a man could be so misguided beggars belief. That somebody hasn't called the cops on him by now is also hard to swallow. But accepting that this turn of events could be real is all part of the plan.
The audience is "treated" to the sight of extended sequences where the father and daughter chase each other around like lovebirds, luxuriate in each other's arms and whisper sweet nothings to each other.
If that's not icky enough, Leng Leng, played with willful abandon by Eng, has developed some sort of Electra complex from years of sleeping naked with her old man.
She treats him as one would a lover, kissing him, sitting on his lap, giving him loving massages and pawing his body with a sense of ownership. She is tetchy is his absence, impatient for his return and leaps into his arms when he is back. Her whole life revolves around him, and she cracks innuendo-filled jokes and gyrates her body in front of him in a way that could only be called sexual. She searches Google to find out about intercourse and pregnancy. She raves about the feel of her father's body, in one particularly skin-crawling moment.
Eng is a revelation here, effortlessly pulling off a role more than 10 years younger, of a 15-year-old girl, willful but sexually precocious. This is no bashful wallflower, but a blossoming one, too immature to know anything about love from anybody except her father.
She puts her dance background to good use, using every muscle to convey the depth of her feelings for him, including baring her back in a few scenes. (Incidentally Eng has proven to be very comfortable with nudity, given her well-publicized naked exploits a couple of years ago in Holland Village.)
From Eng's rambunctious performance, and Cheng and Eng's flirtatious banter, we can see how her father's ludicrous actions have destroyed an impressionable young girl, turning her into an libidinous, Lolita-like creature.
Then there is the wife, ironically named Mei Man (“blissful” in Mandarin). Eleanor Tan is perfect in the role, in an understated but no less impactful performance.
As the only “sane” person in this trio, Tan has the most difficult job of attempting to stoically rein in her wayward stage family, but yet managing to convey to the audience her utter despair within. This she does admirably.
We see in Mei Man's eyes her increasing desperation at being unfulfilled by a husband who has not slept with her for years, her concern over her daughter's well-being, her jealousy that her husband would rather have her daughter than her, her yearning for their past love, and her frustration at keeping the dysfunctional family afloat as the sole breadwinner (what, you think Stony actually makes money being a spiritual adviser?).
If we ignore Stony's implausible spiritual pursuits and incestuous sleeping arrangements, we see a family that could just be like any other, but torn apart due to parental shortsightedness and incorrect priorities.
For Sleeping Naked, despite its enticing title and spiel about spirituality, is essentially a domestic drama about something that could happen to any one of us. Stony’s spiritual quest can be a proxy for anything, from one’s career or business to Pokemon Go, which keeps us away from our loved ones.
How many times have we seen people who, in the name of some earthly pursuit, neglect their family? Have we been guilty of not seeing the woods for the trees in our own relationships?
I'd like to think that the beauty of playwright Beverly Yuen’s script is in its daring to tackle such uncomfortable issues and force self-reflection.
For those who choose ignore the looming disaster, a lesson awaits.
Stony, he who wants to be free from base bodily needs like sex, realises too late how selfish and oblivious he has been when his world comes crashing down.
Leng Leng, who wants to be free from her mother's control, gets a rude awakening about her father, and is forced to grow up.
While Mei Man, who comes to an inevitable conclusion, is the one who truly finds her freedom.