By Sandeep Singh
The Singapore Repertory Theatre must be commended for consistently delivering high quality productions to the public; not least in their presentation, now an annual affair, of Shakespeare’s works in Fort Canning Park which aims to engage, enrich and educate; and has succeeded commendably in all three aspects.
This vision, helmed by artistic director Gaurav Kripalani, leaves much of us – myself included – indebted to their sustained effort to provide world class entertainment as a theatre company for the past twenty-two years. While the park setting with its attendant humidity and lack of cover from the elements can often be a trying venue for one accustomed to the refineries of air conditioned comfort in the tropics, something about the atmosphere every year at the park – with families and friends alike lounging on mats, food and drink in hand, expectantly awaiting the magic of the bard to unfold before their eyes – makes it seem worthwhile.
An outdoor venue such as Fort Canning Park has obvious benefits for the staging of what is widely considered one of Shakespeare’s last (or in some opinions, the last) plays, especially because The Tempest is a meditation through the medium of exile on profound human themes. Being a work that is channeled through exile without being exilic per se – for it is not based on any particular historical source, unlike other major works – the words spoken in the play thus contain more contemporary relevance, and Prospero’s delivery of the following epilogue:
“Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please –”
makes one wonder if Shakespeare is speaking through his character about the role of artist or the playwright in society.
Under the night sky, on the green of the park, this play could not find a better venue for its enactment. This is complemented by a gorgeous set that downplays the spectacular while evoking the spirit of the play in its monumental manifestation, and this is paired by lighting design that offers glimpses into the world of the island. The stage is very much set, as it were, for Braham Murray’s experienced hand at directing (who, incidentally, received an OBE in January 2010 for his services to drama) to bring the island to life through the characters.
Since the play itself is in some sense an “exile” when it comes to categorization, as it has been labelled a comedy with much reluctance, one could only wish that the characters too would successfully communicate these nuances of the prose and text both in their roles and through their language.
While Murray takes a decision to make the action flow through scenes that emphasize both physicality and movement, this often obscures the beauty of the language of the play. More often than not, the pace of delivery takes precedence over appreciation of the potency of the language employed in the text.
This is most unfortunate, for both the simple fact that the audience would have been better able to experience the sense of exile in the play as it is conveyed through the intricacies of Shakespeare’s language, and also because some actors do better to appreciate and communicate these intricacies than others. What this results in is an uneven set of performances, of which I am glad to report, the better stand out more markedly.
Simon Robson is an absolute delight as Prospero, who with his magic cloak and assured command of the text, carries the show from beginning to end – with his commandment of the elements and spirits, he commands us all as well. His articulation of words is precise, beautiful and displays a deep engagement with the character.
Theo Ogundipe communicates, strongly, the synthesis between the physical and the dialogic – but his character, Caliban, often regarded as delivering the most beautiful lines of The Tempest, falls short of this delivery and could have developed his character better. Shane Mardjuki & Daniel Jenkins, veterans of SRT, display a grace only assured actors can in their drunkenness and bestial nature (their characters label Caliban a ‘monster’, but their language and manner are, ironically, more monstrous than he) and both of them do the best job in this play of communicating both physicality and the lines of the bard together.
Unfortunately, there are major shortcomings to other performances. Julie Wee and Timothy Wan deliver uneven performances as the love-struck Miranda and Ferdinand, making their characters recede into the background even as their romance is a central factor in this play. Ann Lek as Ariel leaves much to be desired and her pairing with the far more assured Robson is one of the play’s biggest shortcomings.
Murray’s choice for this part, in many ways, compromised what was a promising production. Lek, who has a wonderful singing voice, unfortunately does not do much to live up to that crisp but important description of Ariel in Shakespeare’s list of characters: Ariel, an airy spirit. Her performance simply lacked depth. With this, the play loses in large part its most important dynamic – that of the intersection of the spiritual and the temporal realms – only to be salvaged in some sense by the other spirits, who in turn are choreographed well and succeed in using the stage effectively.
That said, Murray’s biggest shortcoming remains the way in which he chose to utilize the aforementioned monumental, beautiful set. There are scenes where the action is confined to downstage – either center, left or right – and this decision in blocking hampers the audience, particularly at the current venue, from appreciating the action. This is especially so when actors are transiting onstage and offstage, and one needs to focus more. Simple decisions such as situating more of the action on stage center or even upstage for that matter would have helped the play’s staging immensely. However, this is with the caveat that in one particular scene Prospero looks down upon the action on an elevation of the set – this can be easily lost on the audience if they were not attentive.
Considered as a whole, this version of The Tempest is a remarkably ordinary experience. For a play that highlights the extraordinary – the experience of exile, of magic, of birth and death, of culmination and of regeneration – the Singapore Repertory Theatre has provided an adequate interpretation that does the main elements of the text and characters justice. But in terms of evoking, or in the spirited nature of the play, enchanting, this particular interpretation is wanting in many respects.