REVIEW / THEATRE
Singapore International Festival of Arts Victoria Theatre/Thursday
Japanese playwright Hideki Noda reworked Shakespeare's tragic historical play Richard III into a comedy about cultural icons and the distortion of history through artistic licence.
In the hands of director Ong Keng Sen, Sandaime Richard is even more madcap, a midsummer night's fever dream to enthral Shakespeare geeks and old-school otakus.
Noda's play begins at the dramatic moment when Richard III (Kazutaro Nakamura) loses the battle for the throne of England and begs to exchange his kingdom for a horse. Maachan of Venice (Janice Koh) - Shylock of Merchant Of Venice fame - spirits him away into a courtroom. Here, Shakespeare (Doji Shigeyama) is put on trial for falsifying history in plays that Maachan claims are cathartic works written by the playwright to get back at a crippled younger brother who is also named Richard. To make this even clearer to the audience, the play is reworked into the fight within a clan famous for the art of ikebana, or Japanese flower arrangement.
The pun here, of course, is that Shakespeare's Richard III and the earlier Henry VI trilogy were about the so-called War of the Roses, in which nobles chose either white or red roses to indicate which branch of royalty they supported.
Co-produced by the Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa), Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre and the Shizuoka Performing Arts Centre, Sandaime Richard is this year's signature piece from Sifa director Ong. It reworks a classic piece just as his Facing Goya in 2014 reworked opera; it makes individuality important, as in last year's The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers.
Sandaime Richard is about the importance of words and how these lose or gain meaning over time or in different cultural contexts. The rapid-fire scripted dialogue is deliciously comic and rich in puns for those who understand Japanese. The surtitles will convey the comedy to lovers of Shakespeare, but cannot always explain the ironic importance of certain word choices. This is notably obvious in a sequence where Shakespeare and his brother compete in a game of rhymes and puns that ends with the playwright insulting his brother.
Ong and his team translate the cultural mash-up in Noda's language into visual and sonic cues. There are costumes straight from some surreal runway, the cast of eight represent different theatrical styles mostly from Japan - kabuki, where men play male and female roles; Takarazuka, a musical revue where women play male roles - with a dash of Indonesian wayang puppetry. Dialogue in Japanese, English and Bahasa Indonesia represents the postmodern complexity of Noda's script. Sound makes this play, not just the music designed by Toru Yamanaka, but also the rhythms and tones of the different languages interacting.
The mash-up works best at the beginning and end, where the art of wayang kulit blends with Richard's fearful anxiety or underscores Noda's - and Shakespeare's - point that all the world's a stage and men and women only players.
Screens appear and disappear on stage (set design by Chika Kato), offering canvases for shadow play and projected animation of flowers and plants. Video design (Keisuke Takahashi) is adequate but could have been more subtle. Lighting (Scott Zielinski) is as much a part of the play as the actors, putting characters in the spotlight or horrific silhouette, cooling to blue that shows off radioactive red lipstick reminiscent of clown make-up and also blood.
The cast works together like the parts of a well-oiled machine and three are absolutely riveting. Nakamura, a kabuki actor who specialises in feminine roles, transforms Richard, traditionally an alpha male, into a figure of fun who alternates between menace and tragedy. Takarazuka performer Seika Kuze changes the mood on stage at will, performing with equal facility as the trial judge, Shakespeare's deadbeat old father and a frighteningly portentous potential heir to the ikebana school.
Then there are the superb vocals and puppetry of I Kadek Budi Setiawan. The spotlight is meant to be on Richard or Shylock or Shakespeare, so the puppeteer neatly disappears into bit roles such as an unnamed assassin or handmaiden. After a somewhat overlong climax, however, stark visuals of him shaking the shadow puppets bring the audience back to breathless attention.
Perhaps it is not Richard or even Shakespeare who is the hero of this piece. All along someone else may have been pulling the strings.
•Sandaime Richard is sold out.