Reviewed by Kevin Riordan (Nanyang Technological University)
At the moment it’s hard for a show in Singapore to not be somehow about Singapore. The nation’s fiftieth birthday—branded “SG50”—approaches this August and theater companies have joined, both wittingly and unwittingly, in this moment of national reflection: The Esplanade (the performing arts center whose exterior alludes to the national fruit, the durian) just finished a retrospective of fifty of Singapore’s most important shows; The Singapore International Festival of Art, under the direction of Ong Keng Sen, is commissioning more local work than before for this year’s theme “POST Empire;” And, while the popular company W!ld Rice’s adaptation of An Enemy of the People was staged a few months ahead of SG50, its opening happened to coincide with the public mourning for Lee Kuan Yew, the nation’s founder. So while the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT)’s Tempest at first glance is fairly safe and apolitical—in line with Shakespeare in the Park programming generally—it inevitably joins in for this introspective and retrospective national moment. With a kind of lighthearted shrug, the Tempest’s context and casting produce a surprising, locally-inflected comment on the play’s more customary post-colonial echoes.
Staging The Tempest in Singapore will always seem appropriate—perhaps even a little obvious—but especially now. It easily becomes “site-specific,” as Shakespeare’s last play is, of course, a story about recently contested rule on a small island. And with thirty-some mentions of this “isle” or this “island” in the script, an outdoor Tempest on this island almost compulsively nods to its setting. Since 2007 the SRT has been bringing Shakespeare into Fort Canning Park in central Singapore. This area was once called Bukit Larangan, meaning “Forbidden Hill” in Malay, but it now goes by the name of the first Viceroy of British India. (The title of viceroy, incidentally, is what Stephano offers Caliban and Trinculo, should their coup take.) The stage sits at the bottom of the park’s sloped green, with the audience facing out towards the city’s skyline. The audience is visually reminded that they have not entirely left the city, as the National Museum, the Swisshotel, and still under-construction new buildings frame the set’s backdrop. The noises of the island—both natural and artificial—play with and in the production; the crashing cascades of ice in the corporate VIP bars punctuate the steadier insect murmurs and the traffic noise at the park’s edge. Bats make erratic crosses through the stage lights, as if hearing their mentions in the text and, higher still, the laser show from the Marina Bay Sands casino complex supplements the lighting plot. The space strongly marks the production’s sense of its place, its placement amidst the “subtleties o’ th’ isle.”
Despite the apparent fittingness, this year’s Park selection is curious in that the SRT hosted another Tempest, Sam Mendes’s touring production, as recently as 2010. In contextualizing the script’s swift return within the company’s offerings, Artistic Director Gaurav Kripalani writes in the program that he is “delighted that five years on, we are able to stage our own production in the park.” While the SRT delights in making this Tempest their own, in Kripalani’s gesture to that imported forerunner there lingers an anxiety of cultural influence not uncommon in the company’s programming and in Singapore more broadly. It is this company’s stated mission to provide the city with “the opportunity to experience Broadway, the West End and the richness of Singaporean culture,” and the order and the unevenness of this trio are telling. With the SRT’s own Tempest, with a cast assembled largely from abroad, there is an uneasy sense that this show remains somehow borrowed, a copy or a latecomer. The playwright Kuo Pao Kun most enduringly characterized the uncertain and contested legacies on Singaporean stages and beyond, claiming in a 1996 essay that Singaporeans are “cultural orphans.” Amidst the recent, uneven chorus of SG50’s retrospectives, this SRT Tempest offers a distinctive if only whispered comment on this legacy by transposing The Tempest’s postcolonial message and coyly claiming both the script and the island as its own.
The production’s engagement with history and heritage reveals itself most forcefully in Act 5, when the characters are finally gathered onstage. It is here that the show stages something different from the play’s by-now rather apparent postcolonial valences. What is surprising in this case is that the claims for and on this island come not from Caliban, but from Miranda and Ferdinand (and to a lesser extent Ariel). Caliban is played impressively by the British actor Theo Ogundipe, but his story becomes understated in production. In the beginning, Prospero seems to rush through the Sycorax backstory, and some over-the-top clowning from Stephano and Trinculo distracts from what is at stake in those scenes. In “The isle’s full of noises” speech—often a showcase for the actor and an invitation for audience sympathy—director Braham Murray overlaid those same noises as recorded sound, with synthetic drums awkwardly enforcing Ogundipe’s rhythm through the lines. Through these directorial choices, Caliban seems distanced not only from Prospero’s plans but from the central stakes of Shakespeare’s play. His reasonable claim to the island here seems to be part of an older story, or it is someone else’s; it is as if he, like the actor, is in fact visiting from a different island.
In the final act, with the whole ensemble onstage, the SRT’s casting becomes most apparent and with it a different postcolonial Tempest. In this Singapore production, Singaporean actors are most prominently cast in the younger roles, as if replaying a transfer of power of some half a century ago. In Singapore and in Singaporean theater, there is a celebrated and much-discussed multiculturalism, often abbreviated as “CMIO”: Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Other. (Ethnic identity played a major part in last year’s SRT show, Merchant of Venice, in which Shylock was of Indian descent amidst a largely Chinese and Caucasian cast.) For The Tempest, CMIO’s “Other” looms large, with most of the principal roles played by visiting British actors and white performers based in the region. Ferdinand (Timothy Wan) and Miranda (Julie Wee) are among few Singaporean actors in named parts, and they are both of Chinese descent. Ariel (Ann Lek) shares in their demographic and their youthful aesthetic, though adorned in somewhat confused-fusion iconography: a silver anime wig and a glam-rock suit, and the flowing sleeves of Chinese Opera.
Throughout the show, Ferdinand and Miranda’s scenes were sharp, with crisp entrances and then more patient pacing, and Wan’s and Wee’s work together was compelling. The clarity and the tonal distinction of these scenes only came into thematic focus retrospectively. At the play’s end, due both to the direction and their performances, the play and the island seem to be decidedly theirs, as the twelve-year quarrels of their white parents start to dissolve and to fade. More emphatically than usual, this Tempest is about their inheritance of an island or of a world. These cultural orphans have waited out a storm and now seem to be quite effortlessly taking over. A couple of decades on from Kuo’s statement, this production seems to riff on, confuse, and ultimately set aside that sentiment. The next generation seems to adopt if not embrace Prospero’s, Alonso’s, and Shakespeare’s worlds, with something like the youthful energy and the shrugs of teenagers, enviably defiant, cool, and casual. The postcolonial message plays against the grain of Caliban’s more common claim, providing a more patient and confident—if slightly starry-eyed—vision for this or that island’s future.
In this sense, the SRT’s Tempest dramaturgically concludes with that iconic scene of Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess for “a score of kingdoms,” highlighting both the play’s generational dynamics and its playfulness. Older generations quibble about the past, but the betrothed grow enamored with each other and with their future. Unlike in the inner chamber of a Globe-shaped stage, this chess game remains elevated stage-right; Miranda and Ferdinand play their game on top of Prospero’s books, without regard for the cell that once was his proper domain. On the elegant sweep of designer Simon Higlett’s wide stage, the couple faces each other, seemingly indifferent to both the negotiations of their parents downstage-center and to the audience’s sight lines. They are turned to one another and that’s what matters; together, they will inherit if not this island, then some other. Their Tempest is not about correcting remembered wrongs, but about waiting out the inevitable but natural process of inheritance. And ahead of SG50, on this outdoor stage between the modern city and still-untrammeled jungle, this young couple’s stagecraft and their statecraft inevitably, like rough magic, come to rhyme.