(The opening set of “Wonderous Measure”)
“Wonderous Measure”, a play written and performed by Year 3 NUS Theatre Studies students, was staged at the Yale-NUS Blackbox on the 18th and 19th of March. Based loosely on ‘The Tempest’ by William Shakespeare, the play intertwines modern day Singapore life with the world of Shakespeare. It was a highly personal play for the actors involved, as they drew on their own life memories in constructing the script, drawing parallels between events in the Tempest and events in their own lives.
Walking into the Yale-NUS Blackbox, we were greeted with the sight of small white boxes scattered all over the black stage, stacked up in various configurations. Combined with the blue lighting and the creepy, atonal music, the effect was decidedly unsettling. Dark fairy tale-esque music played, hinting at the supernatural elements of The Tempest. Dramatic piano chords were accompanied by an unidentifiable, metallic-sounding instrument.
Suddenly the lights went out, and a sole figure crept onto the stage, visible only by the torchlight she was carrying. The build up of the creepy atmosphere was excellent. Many more figures, all carrying thin piercing torchlights, joined the first figure, and together they launched into a dissonant acapella performance of ‘Doe, a deer, a female deer…’
In a flash, though, that magical atmosphere was deflated. The music cut abruptly, and the plot transitioned to a familiar, mundane scene: a class gathering of ex-secondary school classmates. The set was innovatively re-constructed as the cast re-arranged the white boxes into a different configuration, something that they would continue to do efficiently throughout the play.
At the class gathering, the group of old classmates decided to spontaneously re-enact scenes from their old Literature text, ‘The Tempest’ by William Shakespeare. This was apparently supposed to explore what they had taken away from their old Literature classes, and how the vagaries of life had led each of them to interpret Shakespeare differently.
A highly self-conscious, meta-approach to the play was therefore taken. The old classmates would take turns playing the characters in The Tempest. One would play the spirit Ariel, and another would abruptly cut into their monologue by saying ‘no, you should act that part in a different way’. To make the transition from Singapore to Shakespeare more evident, the actors would wear thin plastic coats to denote that it was a Shakespearean role, and take the coats off when they were transitioning back. All this was done in front of the audience in a highly Brechtian manner of making the seams show, never letting the audience forget the constructed nature of the play.
With two different worlds running side by side, perhaps it was understandable that the plot never seemed to gain momentum and take off. The attempt to link the two worlds of Shakespeare and Singapore, though ambitious, was not convincing. The overly self-conscious transitions added even more to the sense of disjointedness.
Nonetheless, the cast did well within the limits of their script. After a shaky start, the actors started to gain their momentum, and the group chemistry became evident. The bullying scene, played by Joshua Gay, Ezra Lee and Phan Yi-Wen, escalated slowly from harmless teasing to outright hilarity. The peer pressure scenes, where Joshua was bullied by his pai kia friends into doing various tasks, were energetic and entertaining. The duo of Emily Chee and Soh Rui Yi delivered a highly realistic performance of a domestic helper and her petulant little girl. The duo of Hazelle Teo (playing Miranda) and Daniel Sim (Caliban) achieved the perfect mix of funny and creepy when they declared that they wanted to have each others’ babies. The clique of mean girls, led by Lara Tay, captured the dynamics of secondary school bullying well.
“Wonderous Measure” had a talented cast that was ultimately constrained by a confusing plot. While there were moments of brilliance in that production, they were too disconnected from a larger whole to really redeem the script. For instance, the Emily/Rui Yi duo gave a strong performance, but it was not clear how their sub-plot connected with everything else. Thankfully, three actors managed to hold up the entire play – Joshua Gay, Phan Yi-Wen and Ezra Lee were the constant threads throughout the whole performance. All three navigated the contrasting worlds of Shakespeare and Singapore deftly, and by a mix of script-design and individual talent, they helped to give the narrative some sense of coherence.
The play ended opposite to how it started. Instead of darkness, the stage was suffused with a warm orange glow. Instead of dissonant acapella, we had a rendition of ‘Do Re Mi’ that was very much in tune. Unfortunately, the ignorance of the audience did not resolve into clarity or understanding. Much of the production – set, lighting, sound and acting – was well executed, but there is also definitely room for improvement. Here’s wishing the Year 3 Theatre Studies cohort all the best in their theatre journeys to come.
(The ending scene of “Wonderous Measure”)
Image Credits: All images are from the NUS Arts Festival Facebook page