Singapore International Festival of Arts

A multi-lingual take on Shakespeare

Home-grown director Ong Keng Sen's version of Sandaime Richard includes gender-bending performances, with actors speaking a variety of languages

Kabuki performer Kazutaro Nakamura plays the titular character in Sandaime Richard. PHOTO: JUN ISHIKAWA

Hideki Noda's award-winning reworking of Shakespeare's Richard III has the titular character accusing the Elizabethan playwright of defamation.

Singapore director Ong Keng Sen's version of Sandaime Richard adds further twists with gender- bending performances and actors speaking in Bahasa Indonesia and English, as well as the original Japanese.

Sandaime Richard has a sold-out run from Thursday to Saturday at the Victoria Theatre as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa).

Ong, 53, is also the festival director. He has directed a signature piece every year since the festival restarted, starting with the Michael Nyman opera about genetics, Facing Goya, in 2014; and last year's collaborative performance art piece, The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers.

He says: "As a working artist, I also question the position of a curator. The curator is at the top, selecting the artists, telling audiences what they should watch. Directing this play, I'm as vulnerable as the artist and exposing myself. It allows for a dissection of the festival director."

Sandaime Richard is produced by Sifa and co-produced by Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre and the Shizuoka Performing Arts Centre. After the opening shows this week, there will be a two-week run in the Tokyo theatre, followed by a tour of four Japanese cities, including Shizuoka.

Shakespeare's Richard III was loosely based on the so-called War of the Roses in which two rival branches of the royal family battled for the throne of England.

"Noda makes the War of the Roses the fight of an ikebana clan," says Ong, referring to the Japanese art of flower-arranging. "It's a very obvious joke, but also very sophisticated."

Even as Noda plays around with culture and context in his script, which is rich in Japanese puns, Sandaime Richard was rendered "untranslatable" directly into English.

So Ong is playing further with language and gender in his adaptation, creating a "smorgasbord of cultural bites". The cast of eight includes five Japanese performers, two from Indonesia and Janice Koh from Singapore. It is performed in English, Japanese and Bahasa Indonesia, with English surtitles.

Noted film actress Jajang C. Noer will speak a minority dialect from Sumatra - her native language - and play the role of Richard's greatest adversary, Elizabeth, as well as Shakespeare's mother.

"We use her minority language to challenge Richard. She's coming from the edges just as the character of Elizabeth is coming from the edges and trying to push her children to become the next king, or Shakespeare's mother is using Shakespeare to push for her own fame," Ong says.

Some members of the cast play different genders on stage, in homage to the Japanese tradition of kabuki, where men take on female roles, and Takarazuka, where women dress up as men and perform musicals.

Koh plays Richard's lawyer, Maachan of Venice - a pun on Shylock, the Merchant of Venice - and Indonesian puppeteer I Kadek Budi Setiawan is cast as a lady in waiting.

However, cast member Kazutaro Nakamura, a noted onnagata of the kabuki stage, that is, a man known for playing feminine characters, plays Sandaime Richard, a masculine, domineering character.

Subverting audience expectations is the point, says Ong.

"In my work, I try to create many misunderstandings and options. The audience will have to make its way through this lush forest of viewpoints."

• Sandaime Richard is sold out.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2016, with the headline A multi-lingual take on Shakespeare. Subscribe