Singapore Repertory Theatre is all set to celebrate Shakespeare’s 450th birthday with its annual little picnic in the park.
“In the twinkling of an eye”, it’s been 450 years. Centuries worth of memorised soliloquies and adapted texts, of countless analyses and unending quotes. The Bard has survived unscathed, and every once in a while, he is remembered in unique ways that reiterate his timelessness.
The Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) has its ways too. For seven years, the company has been arranging Shakespeare in the Park, a production that urges you to bring out that picnic basket, put together the sandwiches, and make your way to Singapore’s Fort Cannings Green for some excellent drama, literature, entertainment and company. This year, SRT is all set to stage Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”, directed by Bruce Guthrie and complete with a stock market crash and an Indian Shylock.
Gaurav Kripalani, the company’s Artistic Director, remembers a time when the Bard’s words had seemed a tad boring. “I never liked Shakespeare in school. It was only when I went to my first Shakespeare in the Park production that I finally realised why this man’s plays still resonate after 450 years.” And it was this idea that Kriplani wanted to bring to a country he feels is still young. The company, and Shakespeare in the Park, have become his way of instilling the love for the arts in Singaporeans. “I wanted everyone in Singapore to have the same epiphany I had,” he adds.
While Shakespeare in the park as a concept has worked successfully in cities like London and New York, the space for it in Asia remains underutilised. It was this space that Kriplani was looking to fill. “I felt we could create something like that in Asia to bring literature to life in a relaxed environment to make it more accessible. In Singapore especially, where everyone’s second language is food, combining picnicking with theatre seemed like a winning formula.”
It’s a rich repertory that SRT has gathered together, with past performances that include “Othello”, “Twelfth Night”, “Macbeth” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. This year, like always, SRT has started preparations with enough time to spare. Transforming a space that is both vast and versatile is no easy task. Kriplani admits that “creating SRT’s Shakespeare in the Park is like building a little township”. Almost a month before the play, SRT takes over the park, moving in generators, toilets, lighting, staging, security, etc. Over 100 people are employed to work on the project, a huge number for a small non-profit theatre. So far, the productions have been on a giant, impressive scale. “In ‘Midsummer Night's Dream’ we had walkways built throughout the audience, so the action took place everywhere. In ‘Othello’, we had eight shipping containers stacked to form an army barracks with projections of a helicopter landing in the park. In ‘Twelfth Night’, we had the ocean as a backdrop and a yacht on stage. And for ‘Merchant of Venice’ we will have something incredibly modern. Just to give you a hint — one wall of the set will have over 50,000 LED lights.”
Along with the LED lights, the audience has the interesting adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s best loved plays to look forward to. While Kriplani is a purist in terms of the text, opting to stick to the original script, he is all for adapting the settings, and sometimes shortening the plays. “What we do is adapt the setting to one that we feel our audiences will relate to. If we do a good job, the story becomes clear and everyone understands the language Shakespeare used. People forget that these are plays, not novels. They are meant to be staged, not just read in a classroom.” And this year, Kriplani feels they’ve selected a play which best fits a contemporary cosmopolitan setting.
“Singapore is a port city that developed with trade along a river, much like Venice. In our version, rather than losing his ships at sea, Antonio loses his fortune when the stock market crashes.” In SRT’s production, Shylock, one of Shakespeare’s most sympathetic and infamous villains, is Indian, and Kriplani explains the reason behind this decision. “Singapore is a financial capital. In the old days, Indian money-lending Chettiars were a common sight. Today they have become Indian Private Bankers in fancy suits. I felt our audience would better relate to the moneylender if he was an Indian.”
Remesh Panickar, who plays Shylock, says that he is in awe of the talent he is working with. “With the exception of my old friend Gerald Chew, I have not worked with any of them before. So it is such a privilege to share a stage with them. We have actors from the U.K., India and Singapore, and this brings a lovely cosmopolitan texture to the production not unlike the Venice Shakespeare set his play in, and contemporary Singapore.”
Already, the buzz is growing, and once again, Kriplani expects a great turnout. What began with an audience of 6000, by no means a small number, last year attracted 30,000 people, with 10,000 students in the mix.
Along with the crowd, Kriplani hopes that slowly, the production’s scope will grow too. “We started with Shakespeare because the themes in his plays are universal and timeless. His turn of phrase remains something to marvel at. And he has been adapted and translated into pretty much every language in the world. We wanted to create an annual event and build a brand.”
The goal, though, is to create an annual festival in which SRT will stage plays and musicals and various satellite events which don’t necessarily need to be Shakespeare. For now though, if you are looking for a short trip out, grab your picnic blanket and make your way to the slightly humid, very sunny but infinitely entertaining world of Shakespeare in the Park.
For more information - http://www.srt.com.sg/
Venue - Fort Canning Park, Singapore
Date - Wed, 30 Apr - Sun, 25 May 2014
Time - 7.30 p.m.
For more information - http://www.srt.com.sg/