STOP10 Feb 2017: 'Early Morning Awakening', adapted from Haresh Sharma's 'Off Centre'

With its bold and tender depictions of mental illness, Haresh Sharma's Off Centre became the first ever Singapore play to be offered at the O Level examinations, and remains one of the landmark works of The Necessary StageIn his notes on the play, Sharma recalls how the theatre company chose in 1993 to turn down the Ministry of Health's $30,000 funding in order to refuse the ministry's request for 'less extreme depictions of mental illness.'

In 2003, the play was adapted for the TV channel Arts Central into the one-hour telemovie Early Morning Awakening, starring Yeo Yann Yann and Daniel Hutchinson. It will be screened this February as part of Objectifs' Watch Local 2017 festival. Below, we touch on three intriguing adaptation choices that were made in the process of bringing Off Centre from stage to screen:

1) The casting of Yeo Yann Yann and Daniel Hutchinson
Off Centre is known for the delicate pas de deux between its leads Vinod and Saloma, who are bound in their status as mental health patients and racial minorities even in spite of their differences: Vinod, an outspoken manic-depressive university student; Saloma, a timid schizophrenic ITE graduate.

Yet, for Early Morning Awakening, the casting of Daniel Hutchinson and Yeo Yann Yann meant, naturally, that these characters had to be adjusted in ethnicity and name to fit their actors. The result was the racially nondescript 'Mark' and the very Chinese 'Mayling', and an excising of Sharma's trademark blend of non-English languages into his dialogue, especially between Saloma/Mayling and her mother. Nonetheless, Hutchinson and Yeo press on admirably, abetted by directors Gozde and Russel Zehnder's bold filming of the adaptation as though we live in these characters' headspaces.

2) Title swap
Perhaps these fundamental changes made it easier for the powers that be to choose an alternative title for the telemovie, opting against Off Centre in fear that it would not live up to audiences' expectations to see the play filmed intact. The new title, Early Morning Awakening, comes from a phenomenon explained in both the play and film: "You wake up at two, three in the morning and feel very depressed. You can't sleep. You keep thinking and thinking. But nothing helps."

In many ways, the difference in the two titles reflects the key aesthetic differences between the play and film. Off Centre, with its blunt syllabic stresses at the start of both words, follows the way that its characters are always off-kilter and threaten to spiral out of control. Its meaning is reflected, too, in the striking theatrical choice to have Vinod start the play sitting at the edge of the stage, talking to the audience as they enter and making use of that unconventional fourth-wall breakage to reflect the character's madness. (That technique has since been aped by many plays in the name of 'interactive theatre', but never quite with the same impact and purpose.)

By contrast, the title Early Morning Awakening is softened by the feminine rhyming of 'morning' and 'awakening' as well as the soothing rhythms of the lengthened phrase, which better reflects the more circular, less plot-driven approach that the Zehnders have taken to the telemovie adaptation. Unlike in Off Centre, the film doesn't drive itself to a sobering climax, but loses us amid the off-beat rhythms that the characters find themselves in.

3) The completely altered ending / use of narrators
Another signature choice made in Off Centre is the way Vinod and Saloma flit between their status as narrators and characters, until the climactic moment when Vinod drives his 'narrator' persona away, hence toppling into the play's heartbreaking final scene. Naturally, this works better in the theatre as a canny use of stage conventions, and might not translate as well onto the screen. 

Early Morning Awakening retools the play's climax completely, changing the role of narration and the status of one of the play's minor characters, and producing an unexpected, tragic ending that is entirely its own.

Written by Colin Low

Early Morning Awakening will be screened on 11 February at 4pm as part of Objectifs' Watch Local 2017 series, at the Objectifs Chapel Gallery.
Entry by donation.
Register via Peatix:

For the full list of February 2017's 10 films under STOP10, click here.
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