Dream sets come true

Raden Mas: An Epic Of A Princess (Sri Mamanda Bangsawan)
Raden Mas: An Epic Of A Princess (Sri Mamanda Bangsawan)PHOTO: SRI MAMANDA BANGSAWAN
Ophelia (Cake Theatrical Productions)
Ophelia (Cake Theatrical Productions)PHOTO: CAKE THEATRICAL PRODUCTIONS
Cherry Blossom (Esplanade– Theatres on the Bay)
Cherry Blossom (Esplanade– Theatres on the Bay)PHOTO: ESPLANADE – THEATRES ON THE BAY
Intrusions (Jean Ng and Joavien Ng/ Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay)
Intrusions (Jean Ng and Joavien Ng/ Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay)PHOTO: ESPLANADE – THEATRES ON THE BAY
Lord Of The Flies (Sight Lines Productions and Blank Space Theatre)
Lord Of The Flies (Sight Lines Productions and Blank Space Theatre)PHOTO: WALLACE WOON

Veteran set designers square off against newcomers for this year's Best Set Design

This year's nominees for Best Set Design built a spectrum of worlds spanning the grandiose to the gritty.

There were the ornate palaces of Malay opera Raden Mas: An Epic Of A Princess by Sri Mamanda Bangsawan and the stripped-down studio within a studio by design collective neontights for Cake Theatrical Productions' Ophelia.

The list pits veterans such as Sebastian Zeng, who has been designing for close to 30 years, and Wong Chee Wai, who has three previous wins in this category, against newcomers such as Bernice Ong, who created the cluttered dreamscape of Intrusions.

The award, among others, will be given out on April 10 at an invitation-only event at the Esplanade Recital Studio.

•For more Life Theatre Awards stories, go to http://str.sg/4sDs.


Nadiputra, Zulkarnine and Nas Hakim (pictured)

Nominated for: Raden Mas: An Epic Of A Princess (Sri Mamanda Bangsawan)

Previous nominations: None

Previous wins: None


PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

The ambitious sets of Raden Mas wowed audiences with their splendour, but for theatre veteran Nadiputra, it was still not enough.

The Cultural Medallion recipient, 70, wrote and directed the $1.3-million Malay opera, based on the legend of a 16th-century princess in Temasek who sacrifices herself to save her father.

As it marks the first production Sri Mamanda Bangsawan put on in the Esplanade, Nadiputra and the set team, producer Zulkarnine, 48, and designer Nas Hakim, 27, wanted to pull out all the stops.

For the kingdom of Kediri, they built a kraton - a Javanese palace - with a roof so heavy, it had to be lifted onto the pillars by a crane.

For a climactic scene with a burning house, Nadiputra wanted nine projectors to create the illusion of the walls collapsing in flames. At $27,000 for a five-minute scene, however, it was too costly. Instead, they used one projector and conveyed the flames through dancers, streaming cloth and smoke machines.

Despite rave reviews about the sets, Nadiputra says: "We only achieved 80 per cent of what we wanted."

He hopes to make the show bigger and better in the future. "We intend to take this show to the Sydney Opera House, Oman, London. We must be on a par with international standards of performance and bring something special to the rest of the world."


Neontights (pictured)

Nominated for: Ophelia (Cake Theatrical Productions)

Previous nominations: Illogic (Cake Theatrical Productions, 2014)

Previous wins: None


PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Shakespeare's Hamlet is known for its meta-theatrical qualities, featuring a play within a play.

For Ophelia, a deconstructed take on Hamlet, design collective neontights fittingly built a studio within a studio - specifically, Cake's rehearsal space replicated within the walls of the Esplanade Theatre Studio.

"We wanted to portray a space within a space," says designer Nizam Supardi (above), 41, who led the avant-garde collective for Ophelia. "A set doesn't have to be big. It can be intimate, small yet impactful. This particular set was a personal space we wanted to bring to life in a theatre."

Ophelia took place in a white rehearsal space with peeling walls which could, with the aid of lighting and sound, be transformed into a battlefield or river.

In the final scene, a curtain of rain falls between Ophelia and the audience - a tender, intimate effect which in fact required a great deal of work behind the scenes. The entire space had to be waterproofed by laying a huge canvas on the floor, then covering it with carpet to absorb any leaks.

The crew was also not able to test the rain effect in advance. It was achieved using a pump in the theatre that was linked to a water source in the toilet.

"We needed to time how fast the water would take to flow to the theatre, so that we could prepare for the stage manager's cue," says Nizam. "It was a challenge, but it brought a very real element to the ending."


Sebastian Zeng (pitured)

Nominated for: Grandpa Cherry Blossom (Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay)

Previous nominations: Seven for Best Set Design, including One Flea Spare (luna-id Productions, 2003), Quills (luna-id Theatre, 2006) and The Dresser (Singapore Repertory Theatre, 2007)

Previous wins: Best Production Design for Down The Road (luna-id Productions, 2002), Best Set Design for The Physicists (luna-id Theatre, 2005)


PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

After a decade away from theatre, veteran set designer Zeng returned with a bang in Grandpa Cherry Blossom, a children's show based on a Japanese folktale about an old man and his beloved pet dog Shiro.

The 53-year-old, who has built sets for more than 150 productions, created a simple yet engaging set, with versatile Japanese screens and projections of cherry blossoms.

He feels designing for children is harder than designing for adults. "People think, oh, it's just a kids' show. But that does not mean we think or design less. You have to think of what is inspiring to them, what is easy to understand."

Sightlines have to be lower, for instance, and there can be no sharp corners which might hurt unsuspecting children.

For the play, which was targeted at children aged two to six and sensory-friendly to those with special needs, he created a landscape of cheesecloth bushes that they could scramble around.

"It was the kind of show where parents should not ask their kids to sit down," he says. "They would run together, sing together, help Shiro find the gold. When I saw the way they reacted, it felt wonderful."


Bernice Ong

Nominated for: Intrusions (Jean Ng and Joavien Ng/ Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay)

Previous nominations: None

Previous wins: None


PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

When she was growing up, Ong used to dream of a stairwell in her grandmother's house that led to the attic.

But in real life, there was no attic in the house.

Ong, 28, drew on this memory to create the "organised chaos" of the onstage dreamscape for Intrusions.

She crowded the set at the Esplanade Theatre Studio with a mishmash of objects - a sewing machine, a glass fish tank, the discoloured statue of a dog she borrowed from her uncle and more.

Most of the objects were obtained by combing through Cash Converters secondhand stores and online marketplace Carousell.

Surrounding all this were ladders leading up into the darkness of the lighting grid, harking back to her childhood dream.

"That image of trying to explore a place I never managed to get to was something I wanted to use in the play," she says.

One ladder had a telephone atop a rung, which would ring during the show. "Jean tries to climb towards it," recalls Ong. "But owing to maybe a fear of heights or apprehension about who is calling, she doesn't answer it."

Despite the seeming mess of the set, she had to construct it carefully with audiences' sightlines in mind.

"I wanted their eyes to wander. It's not straightforward and how one might understand what's happening onstage would be dependent on one's own experience and memories."


Wong Chee Wai

Nominated for: Lord Of The Flies (Sight Lines Productions and Blank Space Theatre)

Previous nominations: 10 for Best Set Design, including Lovers' Words (The Fun Stage, 2005), Freud's Last Session (Blank Space Theatre, 2013) and The House Of Bernarda Alba (Wild Rice, 2015)

Previous wins: Best Set Design for The Last Temptation Of Stamford Raffles (Wild Rice, 2009), Twelve Angry Men (Nine Years Theatre, 2014) and Legends Of The Southern Arch (The Theatre Practice, 2016)


PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

To create the dense jungle world of Lord Of The Flies, Wong ordered more than 10,000 faux plants off the Internet. Director Samantha Scott- Blackhall had wanted audiences to be immersed in the environment of the play, in which a group of schoolboys survives a plane crash on an island and descends into brutality.

To achieve this effect, Wong, 45, bought a dizzying array of creepers, ferns and moss. He and his team spent 21/2 days weaving a green canopy that extended over the audiences' heads and transformed the School of the Arts' Studio Theatre into the heart of a tropical island.

"We jokingly called it our 'floral arrangement'," he says. "We were very, very tired by the end of it and my first thought was, 'Oh my god, next we have to tear all this down.'"

Wong is a familiar name in the awards' set design category. Last year, he dominated it with four nominations, winning for martial arts play Legends Of The Southern Arch.

Nevertheless, he says: "It's still a surprise to be nominated. There will always be pressure and you have to keep pushing the bar up."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2017, with the headline 'Dream sets come true'. Print Edition | Subscribe