Will the East and West finally meet on stage? The Bridge Project, which has brought a lavish production of ‘The Tempest' to Singapore, aims to connect cultures through theatre, recreating the magic of Shakespeare for an Asian audience...

“A crazy, slightly unhinged attempt.” That's Oscar-winning theatre and stage director Sam Mendes humorously describing the scale of his latest theatrical venture, currently playing in Singapore: Shakespeare's “The Tempest”, presented under the umbrella of The Bridge Project.

The extent of its ambition is certainly audacious. As the name itself suggests, The Bridge Project wants to use theatre as a connector at multiple levels: to recreate the magic of Shakespeare for contemporary audiences; to forge transatlantic partnerships over a four-year period between stage and celluloid actors, as brought together by Sam Mendes, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and London's Old Vic run by Kevin Spacey; and to bring West and East together by touring the productions in Asia.

On target

However, considering that many of the Project's ambitions are already realised in its second year, perhaps it's not that crazy an attempt.

The Bridge Project's 2010 production, “The Tempest” is the second of its plays in Singapore, where it is presented by co-commissioner/ producing partner, Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) along with Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay; it then moves to Hong Kong. However a production of this scale is not meant just for local audiences in these cities, but for theatre aficionados regionwide. As SRT's artistic director Gaurav Kripalani points out, for Chennaiites especially, it's a “less than four-hour plane ride to see Westend and Broadway rolled into one”.

The excitement works both ways. For those involved in the Project, as Spacey says: “To be able to go and make an argument for theatre in places where they might never have been able to see this kind of production under such a remarkable director is really very thrilling.”

Lavish productions that combine “serious” theatre and smart entertainment, and tour to Asia: now that is a rare beast. It's expensive, for one; the price tag of presenting “The Tempest” in Singapore comes to about S$2 million. Mendes agrees that costs mean “there is less and less international touring now,” but he disagrees that theatre's appeal is only to a super-niche audience, unlike say, a touring music show. He firmly believes “there is an incredibly hungry, eager audience out there, particularly for Shakespeare.”

Certainly, in 2009, 173,735 people around the world saw The Bridge Project's first production, Shakespeare's “The Winter's Tale”, starring Ethan Hawke and Rebecca Hall. This year, the company is a combination of classical actors and rising stars, such as Stephen Dillane and “The Hurt Locker's” Christian Camargo. As for the play itself, featuring such dramatic characters as magical Prospero, beastly Caliban and airy Ariel, “The Tempest” offers immense possibilities for a truly “spectacular” production.

Touring prospects

The more long-term hope is that the Bridge Project plays will open up Asia as a touring venue to quality theatre productions. As SRT's Executive Director Charlotte Nors notes: “In 2009 SRT was the Bridge Project's only Asian partner. This year Hong Kong Arts Festival is involved and the producers are keen to add even more Asian destinations in year three.” In this respect, Spacey feels it was smart of SRT to take on the gamble of the Bridge Project because “they have established Singapore as the natural gateway to Asia for theatre”.

For any country, the cultural product should be viewed as a necessity rather than a luxury. In economic terms, as Spacey shared during a recent visit to Singapore, cultural/theatrical institutions such as the Old Vic and the Barbican have transformed London, bringing the multiplier effect of culture to the economy through its positive impact on tourism, job creation and so on.

Perhaps, too, the much-debated question of theatre's relevance in today's world is at least partly answered by contemporary adaptations such as the Bridge Project's “The Tempest”. Mendes describes the experience of theatre that he brings to his audiences, as one that offers something intimate, personal, human: “In theatre people are transported. They focus on something very small, very human. It's something we need now, more than ever.”

The Bridge Project

The Tempest is on till April 10, 2010 at the Esplanade Theatre, Singapore.

For details visit www.srt.com.sg