It should be noted that the authors of this review have no experience with having children, and one of them does not want children and in the process of writing this review has had to restrain herself from continually referring to children as ‘offspring’.
Written by Faith Ng and directed by Claire Wong, Checkpoint Theatre’s The Fourth Trimester is a tender play centred around the chaos of what most may call a ‘rite of passage’: Parenthood™️. Love it, hate it, shun it, run from it, either way it remains a possible direction of life that hangs overhead for the majority of adults and young adults in Singapore – especially with Asian parents and relatives who will never stop casually suggesting names for your non-existent or future children, or asking for updates about that one relationship from three years ago that set your bar so damn low you’re still having to bargain with Satan to dig it out of the pits of hell.
Our immediate thoughts: The Fourth Trimester is played by a stellar cast of actors who have all had varying experiences with parenthood, with what it means to be a mother, father, or someone supporting one, that have inevitably informed their process of giving life to these characters. There was a very visible and felt sense of empathy with which these characters were played and portrayed, and a strong sensitivity to the script and the narratives carried by each character. It is not always necessary that similar lived experiences are needed to inform a character, but in the case of The Fourth Trimester, it is arguable that it is this very empathy and sensitivity that gave it such powerful resonance.
We are introduced to the first couple in the midst of them welcoming new offspring, launched into the action of an ongoing conversation taking place in what seems like a mid-sized HDB flat. Petrina Dawn Tan’s naturalistic approach in foregrounding the space of the play within the confines of a HDB estate not only speaks to the mental state of each couple, but also foreshadows the issues and conflicts that eventually forces each couple to confront what they want out of their lives (and their familial ties).
Upon first impression, one might say Samantha (Isabella Chiam) and Aaron’s (Joshua Lim) house seems in desperate need of decluttering, or that it is the kind of house that an acquaintance would step into and perhaps snidely remark “it looks very lived in”. One might also say the couple’s house represents the state of mind they have constantly been in since the birth of their newborn son: everything, everywhere all at once.
Samantha is a new mother who, throughout the play, we see struggling with what seems like bouts of emotional outbursts and anxiety over both her new life and her new child, trying her best to be a good mother but not quite knowing how. Perhaps it is inherent in Samantha’s personality to be very hard on herself and to expect herself to be nothing less than perfect – which is, for a lot of us, a very relatable conundrum to be in especially when we find ourselves in stages of our lives where we are not given a roadmap of any kind except perhaps the experiences of the ones that have gone before. As such, in more intimate moments of dialogue with her best friend, Ann (Oon Shu An) harkens back to things their mothers have said and how they have both grown up together. Isabella’s sensitivity in portraying postpartum depression and the anxieties faced by a new mother effectively reminds audiences that there is no instruction manual on how to be a parent, and no “right” way to parenthood. There is only a perpetual attempt, and a continual striving to be better and to do more. This, of course, comes rife with personal sacrifice, and in the throes of this sacrifice we see Samantha on the verge of losing not only her calm but, and perhaps more significantly, herself. This lies in stark contrast to the stability that Aaron, a first-time dad, strives so hard to bring to the relationship in supporting his wife.
Isabella and Joshua’s onstage chemistry as a couple was undeniable, with expressions of affection and care interspersed with moments of lack in exchange for a more practical approach to family life. In essence, when shit needs to get done, shit needs to get done. Practicality and affection often seem like opposite ends of the spectrum in relationships (are they really?), and one is often compromised for the other. In scenes of conflict where it seemed like both parties were not actively listening to each other (as we often do in arguments), their smooth segue into finding a resolution reminds us that parenting is a team effort. Both parents must always remember they are on the same team. Yet the struggles of each team member can sometimes feel lonely and isolating. Many crucial moments in the play also included how Aaron struggles with being a first-time dad and reminds audiences that while new mothers do need support, dads do too. The pressure of being responsible and the heavily ingrained mentality, especially present in Asian cultures, of needing to be a ‘family man’ rests so heavily on the shoulders of new dads. We often forget , sometimes, that they may feel neglected or that their efforts are being overlooked.
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Juxtaposed against the backdrop of the messy chaos of navigating the new dynamics of a family that now involves a newborn infant, Ann comes across as the archetype of a strong, independent woman who clearly presents her desire to live without the need for a child or children to grant her fulfilment in life. Her relationship with Samantha at times seemed like the ideal relationship one could have with a best friend and confidante. We see Samantha finding solace in there being a certain familiarity and comfort in having someone like that around, especially in such a poignant transitionary period in her life where she understandably often feels lost.
It is only with her sister Lisa (Julie Wee) that we finally see Ann in a space of emotional vulnerability, after having walked out on an ex-partner, Johan (Al-Matin Yatim). Ann’s confrontation of Johan with the question of whether he would have held her hand through her decision to abort the child inevitably leaves him speechless. We not only see but experience the physical and emotional tension that threatens to tear Johan apart. How could he not be - when forced to choose between the one, single thing he has always wanted and which would grant him the most fulfilment in life (a child), and the woman he loved (in the context of when both he and Ann were still in a relationship)?
This breakdown of identity and strength of will is mirrored in a similar breakdown by Ann later on. In an intimate moment where she confides in Lisa, Ann sits on the floor with her and, half-laughing and half-crying, laments about how their lives have turned out. This heart-wrenching and painful moment is hard to describe, yet it is so significant; this is a rare moment of theatre in which we as the audience, truly felt for this character and in an indecipherable yet sacred way, truly resonated with the grief and rue with which she was reflecting on her life. Ann’s inability to maintain her “strong independent woman” image - the image of a person who needed neither man nor woman nor child to prove herself - and who consistently gave advice rather than asking for it, seems to tell us that even the strongest castles will eventually crumble. This in particular was a moment in which we really appreciated; the brilliance and acuity of Shu An’s delivery of Ann’s emotions rendered us not only speechless, but as if we were experiencing Ann’s breakdown for ourselves.
This layer of camaraderie and relationship that the two very different women, with strongly opposing outlooks and preferences in life, actively chose to go through together feels like a breath of fresh air, especially when contrasted against a whole slew of narratives in various media where women are thrown into a figurative gladiator pit and constantly compared to and pitted against one another. The Fourth Trimester carves out a narrative in which women hold space for one another, and are each other’s pillars of support and strength. Such is the power and sensitivity, we personally believe, which can be felt through Faith Ng’s writing; such is the urgency to have more of such narratives of female empowerment in contemporary society.
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On the other side of the stage is a sparsely furnished flat where we witness the struggles of another couple, Sofia and Johan. Having just moved in, we see only a bed and some curtains, and a small table. Their living space is considerably bare compared to the very cluttered living room space inhabited by Aaron and Samantha just next door. There is a bed and some curtains, and a small table. The contrast between the two renders this spatial emptiness immediately striking.
It is within the confines of this spatial and, by extension metaphorical, emptiness that we are introduced to Johan, who with a certain air of desperation wants very badly to be a father. He is in a relationship with Sofia, who struggles to conceive. In several conversations between Sofia and Johan, audiences were made privy to very intimate personal struggles in the process of trying to conceive. She is also later revealed in the play to be pretty adept at handling children, having loved children for so long, and comes in at one point to help Samantha placate her crying baby. This revelation was especially hard-hitting, having seen her express not only her desire to finally get pregnant but also the pressure to do so coming from her husband Johan. It is a cursed thing, after all, realising how much potential you have to play a certain role in life and yet, having everything you’ve ever wanted still ever so out of your reach.
Faith’s writing, coupled with Rusydina and Al-Matin’s approach of sensitivity in portraying this tumultuous struggle set within their very delicate relationship, accentuates the realisation that Sofia’s pain stems from a place deeper than her struggle to conceive – it is ultimately the absence of choice that plagues women in these situations, an absence that can feel incredibly disempowering and helpless. In the event that a woman is considering or aspires to have children of her own, the privilege of choice can be a blessing to her – and in choosing motherhood, to actually be able to conceive. Pit that against the backdrop of a still rather traditional society only in its genesis of patriarchal divergence, and it is no wonder that issues of infertility are struggles reserved for couples behind closed doors – the inability for a couple to conceive is still regarded as dirty laundry best not left out to dry.
Of all the narratives that were laid out in The Fourth Trimester, we personally especially appreciated this one — perhaps the inability to conceive should be a struggle talked about more often and embraced as a natural part of trying to start a family. This particular shame associated with infertility suppresses the voices of the women who are affected by it. But shame usually stems from the inability to meet an expectation. So where is the shame even coming from? From a societal expectation that all women should be able to conceive in the first place, or that the defining ‘rite of passage’ a woman must undergo is that of motherhood, which then underscores how, in this patriarchal society, women’s roles are still confined to one of domesticity and motherhood. The Fourth Trimester effectively points to a larger conversation that needs to be had; our society needs to understand that not being able to, and not having children, does not make you any less of a woman or person.
Sofia and Johan’s relationship seems to sit very precariously on whether they can have children. This brings into question whether love truly exists between them. Is a relationship conditional upon having children? Does that then call into question the validity of their relationship? (from the perspective of both individuals) What about couples who decide not to have children? Are their relationships any less valid than those who do? These are questions that, while seemingly having a straightforward answer, are actually more often than not side-stepped, and even swept under the carpet continuously, in Singapore’s relatively modern society.
We also witness conversations between him and his ex-partner Ann who is revealed later in the play to actually have gotten pregnant with him by accident, but who eventually aborted the baby. At this point, Al-Matin’s delivery of Johan’s complexity of emotions, having had this bombshell dropped on him, was particularly painful to watch. We witness Johan straddle between having a loving partner who cares for him but cannot give him what he wants, and being caught in the past where, if Ann had been willing, they could have started a family. But then that would mean Ann would not be who she is. Would that relationship then be the same? And is the concept of having children the primary goal in Johan’s life, as it is in so many of ours? Perhaps it should matter more with whom you have kids, rather than having kids at all.
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In another void deck, Daniel (Hang Qian Chou), is also a new father, but whose approach and perspective on family differs significantly from the rest of the characters. On first inspection, Daniel gives off the image of the ubiquitous real estate agent present in every Singaporean’s life, who radiates a constant and overwhelming source of overly masculine energy, as if his masculinity constantly requires an external source of validation. Indeed, his character at times seems akin to the jester in Shakespearean works, where his overly masculine and stereotypical character seems only there to represent the straight-laced narrative of a heteronormative family unit. At times, he even tries to impose this on Aaron. There is however a curious and compelling earnestness of this character that Qian Chou skilfully portrays. It must be said that in a play fraught with tension and struggle, the entire character portrayal of this man who simply says the wrong things at the wrong times itself deserves accolade – Qian Chou’s brilliant sense of comedic timing sent audiences rolling in their seats while honouring the deeply sobering issues at hand. It is this earnestness with which he is portrayed that enhances the sincerity of Daniel in doing his best to provide for his family. He is the typical ‘family man’, one who has a stable job and provides financially, who believes that a husband/father’s job is to work and a wife/mother’s job is to maintain the household and be at home. A product of deeply entrenched traditional societal values, he seems always too frank and honest and seemingly lacks any ounce of tactfulness in speaking to people.
Short of asking aloud “Lisa, why are you putting up with this misogynistic piece of shit?” we realise later in the play that Daniel's willingness to approach Lisa, acknowledge the ways in which he has hurt her, and apologise for it and want to change, convinces us that there possibly is hope should we be willing to have a second look at how our stubbornly-held beliefs or ways in which we live our life may hurt others.
On the surface, The Fourth Trimester is about the struggles of Parenthood™️ – being new to it, having differing opinions on it, not wanting it, and not being able to have it. In the midst of welcoming the age of parenting into our lives, we often find ourselves not immediately knowing what to do, wondering what happens to our existing relationship now that it is now changed forever, and how exactly it changes. There is no way to predict or prepare for what happens to ourselves or our partner, or how much of ourselves we find having to give, no full sense of what sacrifices must be made as a new parent, except looking to our own parents who have experienced it themselves. In this way, a new light is also shed on how we understand and see our parents, and we ask them for advice. Even then, and as much as parenting is a ‘rite of passage’ most would welcome, we realise that no two experiences of parenting are the same.
While many moments in this play echo our society’s approach to Parenthood™️ as a ‘rite of passage’, The Fourth Trimester proves itself to be more than a play about the struggles of being a new parent. It is a reminder that, true to its title, Parenthood™️ goes beyond trimesters, or any measures of time. It is not a ‘rite of passage’ in the way that the phrase connotes a transitional, temporary, passing phase of life. No. The transition is here to stay. The Fourth Trimester paints Parenthood™️ as a composition of millions of moments of ‘transitory periods’ all collected into one long life of watching your children grow up, learning how to love them as they change and grow, and eventually possibly have children of their own. If it is a rite of passage then that that passageway is one that continues on into eternity, with the transition being the moment a decision to have children was made, and every moment thereafter being one of many more – each messy, painful, and confusing, but eventually all weaved into the grand tapestry of a life that is all at once both dazzlingly spectacular and achingly beautiful.
by Checkpoint Theatre
Date: 4 Aug 2022
Venue: Drama Centre Theatre
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