These Shadows Have Offended
As advertised, A Midsummer Night's Dream was "a fun frilled frolic in the park": a casual yet cultural experience catering to an audience of thousands on the grass of Fort Canning. The event drew families and couples, locals and expats, novices and theatre bitches alike to be diverted by one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies. It was - I reiterate - engineered to be broad-based, appealing and fun.
But sometimes, fun is not enough. For all its strengths, I will argue that SRT's Midsummer was - dare I say it? - ideologically bankrupt. In search of spectacle and mass appeal, director Barry Kyle apparently overlooked the fundamentals of theatre, generating a product agreeable to the lay viewer but shoddy and unprofessional to fellow theatremakers.
To begin with, the production was utterly lacking in a unifying vision.
A glance at the costumes of the show already alerted my suspicions:
designers had gone with the eclectic-fusion-pantomime look, combining
East and West, traditional and modern. The play consequently existed
in a cultural limbo - attendant fairies wore glittery clubbing uniforms
but Titania and Oberon sported bindis on their foreheads; Lysander and
Demetrius sang the score of The Phantom of the Opera while
Hermia and Helena played oh-ya-bei-ya-soh in Mandarin; the Rude Mechanicals
appeared as working-class Englishmen in their football uniforms in Act
One (they're all played by white men), yet by Act Five they were lion-dancing
and doing drag in red cheongsams.
Just as crucially, how is this play relevant to our world? In the programme notes, the director highlights Titania's speech to Oberon, as she points out how their dispute has bred chaos in nature; "contagious fogs" and "hoary-headed frosts... in the fresh lap of the crimson rose". Kyle claims that this speech foreshadows our contemporary problems of climate change, and seizes this as an opportunity to project stock footage of tsunamis and flood damage across Asia. There's definitely some promise in this environmentalist interpretation, as it displays potential as a driving motif throughout the play (though it does invite the sappy conclusion that mere love will solve our ecological crisis; i.e. the ice caps will regenerate if George Bush tricks Laura into having sex with a donkey).
Yet Kyle fails to pursue this vision - not even a hint of it - in further scenes. And without a single passionate idea to compel the production forward, the play's three major threads are unbound, causing Midsummer to resemble a collage of multiple directors' work rather than of a single imported auteur.
Within each individual thread, actors were often able to perform accomplished work, redeeming the play in some audience members' eyes. The first thread, following the plot of the romantic leads, was inarguably the most successful, exhibiting fruitful chemistry and artful physical work between Lysander (Jason Chan), Hermia (Joanna Pilgrim), Demetrius (Rehaan Engineer) and Helena (Wendy Kweh). Pilgrim's performance as a spoilt, stuffed animal-toting girl was especially tickling, topped only by Kweh's hilarious rendition of her character as a bespectacled, manically pathetic young woman in pursuit of her destined husband, finishing off eloquent, impassioned speeches by rolling over as a lapdog and woofing.
Kyle was also generally successful in the second thread of scenes, involving the Rude Mechanicals, the amateur actors who rehearse and perform the play-within-a-play of Pyramus and Thisbe. It was only in the third thread, set in the fairy world, that he truly revealed his shortcomings as an acting coach and a visual director - and this is a real pity, since it's these scenes that are most definitive of Midsummer: fantastic sequences depicting a struggle over an Indian orphan, the harvest of a magic flower and a love sequence between an empress and a beast.
Sadly, any sense of magic in this production was diffused by mediocre acting. Daniel Jenkins was able to hold the fort as a strong, declamatory Oberon, but both Emma Yong and Gene Sha Rudyn seemed nonplussed at how to play their respective roles of Titania and Puck. The two recited their monologues without emotional modulation or human vitality, bound by the very stiffness that a contemporary performance of Shakespeare ought to dispel. (Yes, 16th century English is difficult, but we're talking about the starring actress of Dim Sum Dollies fame and the one-man performer of Anak Bulan Kampong Wa'Hassan - if you can't teach these guys to do Shakespeare, you can't teach anyone.)
The chorus of fairies, composed of the SRT Young Company and the Centre Stage School of the Arts, was similarly lost in the midst of poor direction. For some reason, the female portion of the chorus had been told to act like giggling bimbos - an instruction which killed any sense of disciplined creative movement they might have naturally possessed. Lines were lost as they spoke in overlapping unison, and the finale, where fairies mingled with the audience, delivering blessings with their hands, utterly failed to conjure up any sense of the ethereal.
Yes, I'll praise the creators of the show for an effective set design - the grid of gangways and paths that criss-crossed the Fort Canning green allowed audiences a democratic opportunity to watch close-up action wherever they sat, and provided opportunities for extremely dynamic chase scenes and catfights. But the sets and special effects were, for the most part, gratuitous - why bother to have a giant playground slide if it's used only once during a chase scene? Why employ giant video projections of Oberon and Titania when they're already in plain sight? Why inflate giant neon balloons to represent the sun and moon when they inspire not awe, but horror at their tackiness?
Also, what about the staging of Titania and Bottom's love scene in a giant white box? What about his placement of a psychiatrist's couch in stage centre, or the exchange of a flower between Hippolyte and Hermia? Did Barry Kyle really expect none of the audience to know these are rip-offs from Peter Brook's 1970 production of the same play?
Not everyone will share my objections to Midsummer, nor even find them relevant. That's why I chose to encourage viewership during the play's run with my first impressions review, and still retain my initial rating of three stars. After all, the show contained many strong points, and was palatable (and relatively affordable) to the average viewer, demanding little in terms of psychic commitment and owning no pretensions to being a profound work of political theatre. My expectations were, perhaps, unfairly raised by witnessing Hamlet in 1997 - another collaboration by SRT and Barry Kyle, also staged in Fort Canning, featuring powerful acting and cunning textual interpretation to describe the tensions of contemporary Asian politics.
Nonetheless, something is rotten in the state of Singapore if a theatre
production can prosper with no guiding vision, no ideological convictions,
inconsistent acting and design elements stolen from other directors.
When so much talent, passion and money go into a piece, I demand that
it yield either a solid work of conservative theatre or else a daring
new piece that strives to communicate a heartfelt idea.
SRT's Midsummer is the perfect occasion for a picnic with friends or family - the excellently designed set, involving a grid of walkways that encompasses the audience on the green, provides for a democratic mix of intimate and epic perspectives on the performance. It's also clear that a lot of talent has gone into this production - we've got some great comic acting and chemistry among the romantic leads Lysander (Jason Chan), Hermia (Joanna Pilgrim), Demetrius (Rehaan Engineer) and especially Helena (Wendy Kweh). Nonetheless, it's evident that the work lacks a unifying directorial vision - the mish-mash of contemporary and traditional, of East and West, never quite gels together, the use of multimedia is superfluous, and standards of performance are disturbingly uneven - most of all among the youthful Chorus of Fairies, who are quite unable to conjure up any sense of magic in the air. This is a pleasant enough evening for a casual theatregoer, but to all you hard-ass critics out there - don't expect to get transported to Fairyland.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /