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Russian Dollhouse: A review of Dark Room

By Ng Yi-Sheng

The life of an expat wife in Singapore seems pretty perfect. After all, what could be better than being a wealthy (usually) white woman, with the privilege of going to luncheons in Sentosa Cove and spas in Bali instead of holding down a nine-to-five job?

Dark Room, however, exposes the bleak truth hiding beneath the gilded façade. Based on interviews with these wives, it tells the story of Diana Hailakova, a Russian woman stranded in Singapore with no career, no social life and scarcely any time with her possibly abusive husband. She recognizes the irony of her situation: she’s accomplished every Russian’s dream of getting out of her country and living a life of luxury. Yet she’s tortured by loneliness and regret. “I’m suffocating,” she wails to her husband. He does not understand her, nor does she expect him to.

This hour-long, one-woman play is written, directed and performed by Singapore-based Russian actress Kristina Pakhomova. It’s her first script, and there are marks of rawness to the text. The language is a little bland and untextured—I’d have been happy to see more Russian mixed with the English text. The progress of the narrative is also extremely driven by the character’s interactions with props.

Still, that method of storytelling is pretty effective. We encounter Diana as she’s unpacking boxes in her new home, discovering nostalgic objects which give her an excuse to describe her childhood in Russia: growing up under a philandering father and a traditionally-minded mother, so submissive that she offers to accommodate her husband’s lovers when he wants a divorce.

Diana decides she wants to be nothing like her mother, and leads a very competitive life, first as an amateur dancer and then as a university student studying fashion design. (I’m told in other performances, her subject of study is architecture.) She tries to beat the star student—a handsome man named Mike—but he courts her, and they become lovers and get married. He gets the job she wanted and brings her along to Hong Kong and Singapore. Moving between apartments and countries, she realises she’s become just as much of an unfulfilled housewife as her mother was.

The story’s interspersed with several dramatic moments that put Pakhomova’s acting skills on show. Most prominent is a sequence when she collapses in unexplained agony and frantically searches the room for pills, counting in Russian under her breath to distract herself from the pain. It’s strikingly immediate, it conveys the level of pain the character has to endure, and it’s tied in with a revelation that comes about at the end of the play.

Overall, there isn’t as much cultural specificity as I’d hoped for. The bulk of the story is set in Russia, but there are only a few comments on the idiosyncrasies culture—even though this would be precisely what a Singaporean audience would find fascinating. (The explication of “Russian Bitch Syndrome” was extremely funny, however, and ultimately meaningful.)

There are also very few distinctive anecdotes about Singapore and Hong Kong. This might be for the best—I did experience some discomfort when the character mockingly imitated Indian and Cantonese accents. Of course, this is all justified by on the fact that Diana is too isolated and depressed to have a social life, let alone to bother with not appearing racist. But again, it’s a missed opportunity to connect with a Singaporean audience.

What perturbs me most, though, is the way the show’s been advertised as an exploration of womanhood. The tagline is “What does it mean to be a REAL woman?”, a question that has a far greater scope than this play attempts to cover. Yes, there is a universal sense of female tragedy in the way Diana becomes a less dignified version of her own mother. But the intersection of privilege and globalism that gives rise to the frustrated expat wife is unique. I do not believe that Diana stands for all women—not in this current incarnation of the play, at least.

Dark Room is a passionate and thought-provoking piece of theatre, and it’s to the great credit of Pakhomova that she was able to create it to further her own theatre career. The venue sponsor of GNOSSEM also deserves recognition—they’re the headquarters of the fashion company that also programs performance events at night. If we want our arts scene to grow, we need these upstart, out-of-the-way efforts and initiatives.

This is why I’m formally declaring that if you have a small arts project that the mainstream media won’t write about, I will come and review it for The Online Citizen. We’re an independent news site, after all. Us indie folks have to stick together.

Dark Room

Dark Room plays from Tuesday 7 to Thursday 9 June at 8:00pm at GNOSSEM, 66 Kampong Bugis, #4-01, Singapore 338987. Tickets are available for $22. Email <[email protected]>.