On the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, we find out from aficionados how relevant his works are to Singaporeans today.
BY JO TAN
Published on 11 April 2016
BY JO TAN
“For many students, studying Shakespeare is like going to the dentist. It’s painful,” muses Ivan Heng, artistic director of theatre company W!ld Rice.
Gaurav Kripalani, artistic director of Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT), agrees. “Growing up, I hated Shakespeare. I thought it was dull and drab, something to put you to sleep in minutes.”
Indeed, in a world that is always looking for the next new thing, why would Shakespeare be relevant? The playwright died 400 years ago, and it’s easy to relegate his writing to artefacts of a distant past.
So why are his works still beloved by many today, including Heng and Kripalani, who have presented and/or performed them multiple times? They chorus, “Shakespeare is meant to be performed, not read.”
Kripalani adds, “SRT’s Shakespeare in the Park (SITP) is staged every year to give Singapore audiences — many who have apprehensions about Shakespeare — a chance to appreciate his brilliance with an amazing production.”
Playwright and Shakespeare fan Joel Tan recalls that he was one of the few students who didn’t dislike studying The Bard’s classics in school. “I wanted to study more Shakespeare while reading English in the National University of Singapore,” he says. “Partly because the writing is beautiful, but mostly because people associate a good education in English literature with a very thorough grounding in Shakespeare, like what you’d get at Cambridge and Oxford.”
The fact that he felt that way at all is partly why Tan now believes the playwright is somewhat overhyped here. “Many people think Shakespeare is the epitome of culture, his plays more ‘high-art’ than others. Or they think he is foundational — Shakespeare is the first brush with theatre for many young students who study his works in school, and many drama schools must have dedicated Shakespeare classes.
“But how is he more foundational than our own Asian theatre traditions like Mak Yong or Chinese Opera? Why are these rendered to the fringe? The only reason we think Shakespeare is foundational is because of colonisation. Historically, his works were seen as a way to spread British culture and civilise the natives.”
Tan adds that there are some problems that arise when Shakespeare is seen as better than the art created around these parts. “I’ve been mentoring young playwrights. I try to help them to draw on and write about what’s relevant to them, and cultivate a sense of who one is as a person and an artist. But the thing you find with a lot of young playwrights is that they often write in this very elevated, ‘proper’ diction,” he says. “I think a lot of it comes with an attitude to writing plays in English, and Shakespeare is a big part of that attitude — there’s a ‘proper’ way to speak and express yourself.
“You can’t write in Singlish, you can’t write about what you are, you must aspire to be ‘high culture’ like Shakespeare. And that’s strange because I feel that Shakespeare was never high culture. He wrote using all the colloquialisms of his time and loved a good bawdy joke.”
Heng feels that this deification of Shakespeare is what makes people dismiss the sonnet spinner and dramatist as “boring”.
“People don’t realise it’s about real personalities and real issues. Romeo and Juliet talks about teen sex for example, but do teachers talk about that? When W!ld Rice staged it, we had five literature teachers come to see it without their students, because of the poster,” he says, referring to the show’s publicity materials showing two young figures positioned in an apparently naked embrace.
“I asked, ‘Why didn’t you bring your students? Aren’t they studying it?’ And they said they didn’t know if it would be suitable for their students to watch, though they thought the production was wonderful. I think teachers can talk about how Romeo and Juliet discusses teen suicide and gang fights. Shakespeare is still relevant because he understands real characters.”
DARE TO DREAM Young Singaporeans such as Fazli Ahmad learn to understand Shakespeare through performing his works, such as in this Young & W!ld production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. PHOTOS W!ld Rice Ltd
PG PLAY AND THAT’S OKAY Director Ivan Heng embraced the sexiness inherent in Romeo and Juliet to create a sizzling Shakespearean production.
Of course, not everybody agrees that Shakespeare is still relevant. Says Tan, “People say he is universal, but that’s debatable. A lot of the issues he discussed were particular to his time.”
Award-winning actor Remesh Panicker, who has played roles in various Shakespearean productions over the decades and also produced TV series, Singapore Shakes, which set The Bard’s famous tales in Singapore, elaborates. “Any tale of the human psyche and relationships can be said to remain relevant for a long time. The trick is, how do you take a story written in a time when communication wasn’t instant, and bring it to today? All it would take would be for Juliet to text Romeo and say, ‘I’m only pretending to be dead, be cool.’ Then the entire drama would have been solved with no problem. It would have been true of almost every Shakespearean scenario where there was distraction or misguiding that could not be communicated instantly, and there are many. I’d say the stories are relevant to the modern day, but if you actually wanted to put them in a modern setting, the mode of delivery has to be adjusted.”
Many companies in Singapore do stage Romeo & Juliet as a current-day play. Heng even envisioned the characters as modern Singaporeans. “Romeo was an ACS [Anglo-Chinese School] boy, the Capulets were a Bukit Timah family. People understand when you put someone onstage that’s completely recognisable to the audience.”
This leads to the question of how actors should then perform Shakespeare. Most modern folk, Bukit Timah families or not, don’t speak in the extremely orthodox Queen’s English many believe Shakespeare’s words need to be delivered in.
But Kripalani begs to differ. “It’s not about the accent, it’s about the stresses. Shakespeare often writes in verse so for those lines, you need to stress the words at the right points to bring out the music of the verse, but you could set Shakespeare in different places — speak it with a Singlish, Jamaican accent — as long as your stresses are correct.”
Heng agrees. “I think anything can be spoken in iambic pentameter. Really, no one speaks Queen’s English anymore, even in England. There, Shakespeare is being performed by Mancunians and Scots, in their native accents. Erwin Shah Ismail was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in the Life! Theatre Awards for his performance of Mercutio, but when he began, he approached the role with a British accent. We asked, ‘How do you talk to your mother? Make it closer to that.’ English doesn’t belong just to England anymore. It belongs to the world, it’s a global language.”
Freelance actor/drama educator Fazli Ahmad, who has received pointers by Heng on performing Shakespeare, elaborates. “I haven’t really enjoyed many of the Shakespeare productions I’ve seen. They tend to be tiring in terms of language, especially with those inflections that you hear many actors use. But my experience changed after taking on Shakespeare’s text as an actor, performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream as part of W!ld Rice’s youth training arm, Young and W!ld. Ivan mentioned to us that if you say Shakespeare in a Singapore accent, even just to start with, you understand it better because you are looking at it through your own language. I really immersed myself in the language and text for that production, and I began to appreciate Shakespeare and his grand themes of love and humanity.”
Panicker is less sure about Shakespeare in Singlish. “I’ve spoken Shakespearean text in a West Indian accent, and it worked because the accent is rhythmic. It perhaps wasn’t too far from what Shakespeare intended. But it’s hard to put a rhythm on Singlish, and the Singlish stresses don’t really work in Shakespeare.”
With all these considerations, it would seem there are several obstacles to presenting Shakespeare’s works as plays that are relevant to Singapore. Tan has a solution.
“The Shakespeare production I enjoyed most was unabashedly a period-style production, rendered as it would have been performed during Elizabethan times. It was an all-male cast, period musicians, very low-tech, but it was just amazing. I really understood everything for the first time, it wasn’t reaching for any universal truth. And that’s something you get when you are not trying to make it relevant to any particular group, enjoying its value for itself.”
TEMPEST IN A TEACUP Shakespeare in the Park productions, such as The Tempest (right), are designed to be beautiful and fun enough for language barriers to become of little significance. PHOTO Singapore Repertory Theatre
SHAKESPEARE SPECTACULAR In The Tempest, actress Ann Lek spreads her wings in an eye-popping scene typical of Shakespeare in the Park productions.
Or, companies could just present other plays that were created for and by Singaporeans. Says Fazli, “When I mentioned I was doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, most of my friends said they would not come and watch it. I think the language is still a big hurdle and they get the impression a Shakespearean play is always very long. The young people I teach at Republic Polytechnic enjoyed reading Shakespeare scripts, but even then they are more drawn towards watching works that raise more questions about Singapore and their own lives.”
Heng says, “Presenting Shakespeare does take large amounts of space and time and concentration. W!ld Rice is a company that focuses on holding up a mirror to society. While we could decide to stage a particular Shakespeare play that speaks to the issues of the moment — maybe King Lear in line with the passing of Lee Kuan Yew — I feel there are other playwrights that are as good and current. Shakespeare is wonderful, but please don’t worship at his altar. At the end of the day, he was a playwright/producer writing sexy, entertaining stuff to sell tickets. We should put him on par with any good local play, maybe an Alfian Sa’at play.”
Even Kripalani, an unabashed Shakespeare lover, has had his difficulties staging SITP. “It will now be 10 years since we started doing SITP annually, and we do pull out all the stops to make sure it shows how beautiful and fun and spectacular Shakespeare can be,” he says, calling to mind each edition’s jaw-dropping sets featuring yachts, helicopters or multi-level mansions, and staggering audio-visuals. “To this end, we also try to make it shockingly cheap for what you’re getting. But we have been sustaining losses each year. We are certainly reaching a point where we cannot keep sustaining those losses, and if things don’t change after this year, the upcoming Romeo & Juliet might be the last SITP.”
Whether or not this local institution winds up after this year, Kripalani doesn’t regret having stuck it out as long as he has. “The growing audiences show how SITP has made Shakespeare increasingly accessible,” he says. “More people are realising they can lie on the ground and picnic while enjoying his work. Perhaps the increase in the amount of talent for performing Shakespeare also reflects that. There was a time we would have had to fly in 15 actors out of a cast of 20, but now we have a largely local cast that performs Shakespeare wonderfully.
“The main reason for keeping at SITP is that I love Shakespeare. I am in a privileged position where I get to watch each SITP play 20 times, and every single night, without exception, I will learn something new. I hear an actor delivering a piece of text slightly differently, and it changes the meaning. There are many good plays, but I can’t think of plays by anybody else I’d want to watch twice, let alone 20 times.”
SITP’s Romeo & Juliet plays at Fort Canning Park from 27 April-22 May. See Listings pg 22 for details. Classic film adaptations of Shakespearean plays will also be screened at The Arts House’s Shakespeare Lives in Film from 21-24 April.
Singapore theatre-makers have done some funky things to ‘update’ Shakespeare. Here are a few examples.
By Ong Keng Sen, this production showcased the collaboration between artists from Japan, Thailand, China and Indonesia. It featured various Asian art-forms, including Noh Theatre and Beijing Opera, and toured internationally.
Ma’ma Yong: About Nothing Much to Do (2015)
By Najib Soiman, this was a loose retelling of Much Ado About Nothing. Told in the Malay performance style of Mak Yong, the production was set in an asylum and featured a multi-ethnic cast who spoke everything from Malay to Tamil to Thai.