Worth Review – a theatrically thrilling dark comedy:
Posted on: 25 May 2023 by Olivia McDermott in Posts
Set against the cosy backdrop of the Yeung siblings’ family home, what begins as a comedic journey down memory lane soon spirals into a dramatic retelling of the horrors from the past.
Written by Joanne Lau, this two-hour play features everything from those well-known obligatory family interactions that only occur during weddings and funerals, to finding parts of our childhood that, over time, get left behind in cupboards and boxes. As the four siblings gather in preparation for their mother’s funeral, they realise that their inheritance is missing, or rather, that it has been hidden in different parts of the house. During the second Act, the set is completely turned upside down in attempt to locate the money. The play then takes on an every-man-for-himself dimension, where the characters will stop at nothing until they find what they believe to be theirs. At the very centre of this thrillingly tragic drama, lies the cynical truth that, often, what we leave behind after death, can seem entirely worthless if it fails to possess monetary value.
As the play opens upon this warmly lit family living room, we are first introduced to grandson Anthony (played by Leo Buckly) who, throughout much of the play, interjects with post-pubescent comments of contempt for his mother Penny (played by Jennifer Lim). Although seemingly the most emotionally distant from the experience of grief, Anthony’s relationship with Penny becomes reflective of the dynamic between the other children and their lost mother: imbalanced and self-serving. This intensifies when we meet eldest brother Jacob (played by Arthur Lee), a recovering criminal, who conceals his deceitful tendencies through masquerading as a wealthy businessman. Lee’s performance is so captivating that I found myself – at parts – lost and caught up in his string of falsely pure intentions.
As the action unfolds, we meet the two remaining siblings: Ted (played by Stephan Hoo) and May (played by Sara Chia-Jewell) – both seemingly more innocent than eldest brother, Jacob. Although dentist Ted seems to possess a diplomatically passive ability to remain on the periphery of the family drama, as the action unfolds, we learn that this has more to do with his desire to forget about the emotional challenges of his childhood, rather than an innate yearning to do the right thing. Similarly, May manages to avoid much of the conflict – especially being the youngest sibling – through having spent much of her adult life in the United States. She appears to have gotten off lightly, until in a rampant fit of aggression, Jacob gives her a nosebleed. This increasingly dramatic level of violence is matched so effectively by the lighting and sound choices of both Jai Morjaria and Nicola T Chang, that the action unfolds with a growing sense of audience integration through the immersive nature of both elements.
During abruptly intermittent flashes of red lighting, the characters experience recurring moments of what director Mingyu Lin called, hauntings. Through the immediate physicality of the performers, each sibling brings to life this viscerally disruptive trauma. Until this meeting, such trauma had clearly been long buried beneath the guise of adulthood and success. During these moments, a portrait of the grandmother looms eerily above; ornate in style and unsettling in nature. It watches – or rather she watches – over the action like some kind of omniscient “Big Brother”; a constant reminder of the ways in which we must hold ourselves accountable – especially to the people we have lost. The combination of these hauntings and the spiritual presence of the grandmother were responsible for evoking a subtly transgressive tone, responsible for placing emphasis on two of the very central themes: that things are never really lost, and people never really leave.
What surfaces most poignantly throughout this play is the notion of generational female sacrifice that is almost always forgotten about. The grandmother works relentlessly to be able to own a house and leave behind an inheritance for her children; Penny dotes on Anthony despite the derision that he treats her with; and May is repeatedly referred to as the ‘baby’, although she has achieved just as much as her male siblings. In this way, perhaps most compelling of all is the final line of the performance, spoken by Penny, who after spending the entirety of her life waiting patiently at the back of every queue, declares that from now on things are going to change and she’s “not sorry!” A somewhat revolutionary note to conclude on: that it is never too late to start again. This idea remains central within the play, especially when we consider the impact of modern East Asian writing, that often explores themes of identity, tradition, discrimination and the challenges that occur when attempting to build a life in a new country. Seemingly, such challenges are the only thread of universality that run through and weave together the lives of the Yeung family members.
I suppose the departing question is one that plagues us all: of what will our lives be worth in the end?