Madcap reworking of Shakespeare

(From far left) Chao Yi-Lan, Oliver Chong and Wang Ching-Chun in Blood & Rose Ensemble by Shakespeare's Wild Sisters Group. Crowd Lu's lively, idiosyncratic banter gave the show an element of fun. Singer-actor Sugie Phua (left) plays a wanderer with
(From left) Chao Yi-Lan, Oliver Chong and Wang Ching-Chun in Blood & Rose Ensemble by Shakespeare's Wild Sisters Group.PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY, COURTESY OF ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY

REVIEW / THEATRE

BLOOD & ROSE ENSEMBLE

Shakespeare's Wild Sisters Group

Esplanade Theatre Studio

Last Friday


Several times in Blood & Rose Ensemble, actors mime their parts but lines are spoken by another member of the ensemble.

Director Wang Chia-Ming ties this to the traditional Chinese performing art of shuang huang, but this is also an apt theatrical metaphor for a series of plays about power politics. Who pulls whose strings? And what was the point, given that every coup is overthrown in turn by time or a rival power?

Here, Taiwanese troupe Shakespeare's Wild Sisters Group condenses a quartet Shakespeare plays into just over two hours of farce and tragedy.

The original plays are Henry VI, parts 1 to 3, and Richard III, which cover the 15th-century English civil war known as the War Of The Roses.

Eleven performers from Taiwan and Singapore play almost twice as many roles, including hapless King Henry VI (Hana Tsai) and the rival monarch Edward IV (Chao Yi-Lan), who is later overthrown by his brother Richard (local actor Oliver Chong).

The play could have been half an hour shorter and sacrificed more of Shakespeare's narrative without losing much.

The cycles of power-grab, battle and victory play out in tongue-in-cheek martial arts battles reprised over and over again by the same players, sometimes wearing false beards.

Around the nth time that a battle royale ends with a monarch giving a familiar victory speech, the rest of the cast gives up and starts eating dinner, parroting the words they now know by heart.

Shakespeare's plays gave his audience a window into recent history and Blood & Rose Ensemble plays on this idea by making the cast livestream or record events with mobile phones.

The action plays out on four runways (set design by Kao Hao-Chieh), with the audience close enough to touch the performers.

Even though battles are enacted with plastic swords and foam noodles, the relentless repetition begins to tell as characters fall and are led off by grim spectres.

The finale takes place on a beach overlooking the Taiwan Strait, where the cast appears to harmoniously cook a meal together.

The sound of waves crashing offers a moment of peace - but is it illusory? The ocean is, after all, hotly contested territory today.

Even as the cast laughingly reminds one another that they are merely telling stories for fun, history is too close to the present for comfort.

The next cycle of violence seems poised to break soon.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2018, with the headline 'Madcap reworking of Shakespeare'. Print Edition | Subscribe