A not-so idyllic dream of Farce and Fanfare – Review of the SRT’s “Twelfth Night”

Title of Production: Shakespeare in the Park, Twelfth Night

Theatre Company: The Singapore Repertory Theatre

Date of performance: 11 May 2012

Performance Venue: Fort Canning Park

You have to be partial to the slapstick to sit through Shakespeare’s comedies. You have to be even more partial to affected pretention to sit through this production.

A brilliant concept, but carried out to an uneven execution, makes for a night in Fort Canning Park that didn’t live up to my expectations. I felt like I was in a clinical environment, with people telling me where to sit and what not to take pictures of; was sure this was very unlike the free space in open-air theatres of old where Shakespeare played. The humidity and huge crowd didn’t help one bit. Could have sworn that this was caused by over-selling tickets and the bright stage lights, for Ballet under the Stars didn’t feel this packed and stuffy.

The Singapore Repertory Theatre’s now-annual Shakespeare in the Park series brought Bruce Guthrie of The Bridge Project’s Richard III to direct and helm this production.

Shakespeare in Fort Canning Park? Ambitious. As I was fumbling in the dark for my chopsticks to eat Hokkien Mee with, and swatting flies from time to time, I found it hard to concentrate when some members of the cast spoke too quickly or swallowed their words while speaking in a faux English accent. The ordinary Singaporean would not have understood much of the Early Modern English, much less in an accent, which I thought to be completely pretentious and unnecessary.

And that was probably the problem with this production. Its irrelevance. I don’t understand how this gender-bending tale of mistaken identity, set now in the 1930s-40s and infused with jazz music, relates to present day, and I will contrast this to the hilariously crude but entertaining Hollywood remake of “Twelfth Night”, She’s the Man, starring Amanda Byrnes as a girl who disguised herself as her brother, and fell in love with one of her soccer team-mates.

For those who don’t already know, “Twelfth Night” is one of William Shakespeare’s comedies written in the early 17th century about a pair of twins, Viola (Rebecca Spykerman) and Sebastian (Keagan Kang) who get shipwrecked on the romantic island of ancient Illyria and separated thereafter. Viola then enters the service of the Duke of Orsino (Shane Mardjuki) disguised as a young male page Cesario and falls in love with her master, the Duke. All this while the Duke tries but fails to woo Olivia (Seong Hui Xuan), who in turn falls for Viola, thinking her to be a young man.

There’s a whole sub-plot about the suitors of Olivia, Sir Andrew (Andy Tear) and Malvolio, her head servant (the wonderful Daniel Jenkins). Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s uncle (Neil McCaul) and another of Olivia’s servants Maria (the delightful Vicky Williamson), together with Sir Andrew, plot to take revenge on the overly serious Malvolio who despises their song, dance and merry ways. Malvolio ends up humiliated when Maria feigns a letter from Olivia asking him to do a host of stupid things, like wear yellow cross garters and smile all the time. Olivia also has a hired fool, Feste (Adrian Pang), who is thrown into the mix. In the end, Sebastian appears just in time to marry Olivia accidentally because she believes him to be Cesario, right when the Duke uncovers Viola’s true gender and falls in love with her.

Some members of the cast clearly over-acted and the stage directions were often too exaggerated for my liking – didn’t like that the hormone-crazed Olivia (Seong) tried to hump Viola in broad daylight, and that Feste (Pang), needed to jump into fountains and off the stage to kiss a member of the audience to grab their attention. Iambic pentameter, a notable device in Shakespeare’s plays, was nearly ignored. Pity. Other than that, it appears the delivery of lines were truly flawless in accuracy.

Standouts of the show were the more seasoned and natural actors, Daniel Jenkins as Malvolio, and Vicky Williamson as the effervescent Maria. Jenkins’ evolution of the Malvolio character, from pompous, to swooning and lovesick, lastly to a very debased and faltered man – was so convincing that it made me sad. And this was at the end of a great comedy, mind you. I also finally learnt the origin and context of Malvolio’s “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them“. Ironically, this quotable quote was written mockingly by Maria to Malvolio in the fake letter.

Sweet young things Rebecca Spykerman and Seong Hui Xuan also put up credible performances in their maiden Shakespeare lead roles. Seong could have eased on the big gestures and the girlish way she portrayed Olivia. Spykerman could have been less stoic; but I suppose it was what her character called for. These two are ones to watch.

Despite the patchiness of the production, a few things shone through. I absolutely loved Robin Don’s set. It was such eye candy, a visual feast. Elements of a sprawling yacht with mast and sail occupied half of the stage, complete with a beach bar cafe del mar-style and sand for sunbathing. Fake waves from behind were simulated during the storm and shipwreck. For a peek into the gloriously crafted set, see here. And the front of Olivia’s luxurious mansion had a working fountain, beautiful balustrades, door grilles, and real coconut trees framing the second storey. I also loved how Laurence Olivier award-winning sound designers Rick Fisher (Billy Elliot) and Mike Walker (Jerry Springer) cleverly used Pang’s crooning voice in jazz and blues numbers to Shakespeare’s words, soothing the audience during the otherwise fidgety moments in those three long hours where we camped.

It was a hodgepodge of a lot of good things that didn’t quite make the grade on a performance level, but impressed overall in the care that was taken on the production and creative level. The good turnout showed me that there is indeed a hunger for the arts, and more people are taking risks to understand the Bard and his works, although this particular play might not have been so relevant by virtue of its far-fetched plot. I commend Guthrie and team for a good effort in tackling the Bard, and look forward to seeing SRT’s Hamlet, or Othello, in the next Shakespeare in the Park. Perhaps the intense tragedies would be best complemented by the dark and mysterious setting, instead of this stylish but not-so-memorable romp in the park.

The Singapore Repertory Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park, Twelfth Night, is playing in the Fort Canning Park in Singapore from 25 April 2012 – 20 May 2012. Tickets available from SISTIC.

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