Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by ITI 2022 Graduating Cohort

Photo: Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) 2022

Dear Oberon, King of Shadows, and Titania, Faerie Queene,

Well met by lackluster moonlight, for on this night I write this, the moon deigns not to show its reflective face. I write you this knowing that, like all other letters that foolish mortals address to both your graces, you will never read them, firstly because the wars and matters of the fey realm number too many for you to read the letter of a single insignificant mortal.

But also mostly because you do not exist.

I write to bring tidings of my experience, my joys and my sorrows, my testimony, of another group of young and intrepid mortals, who brought to life (perhaps the millionth rendition of, in this earthly realm we reside in) a version of a story you had witnessed and partaken of many a moon ago; the tale of A Midsommer Nights Dreame. As you may recall, many an audience took pleasure in witnessing the love forlorn, the mischief and mistakes of your servant Puck, and the realisation that as humans, not only is our capacity for love our greatest folly and flaw, but it is this love, the ability to tell stories and to love the myths and mystics of nature, and the capability to love each other, that is our greatest strength too.

I walked into the theatre, not knowing what to expect in terms of staging. To my pleasant surprise, the stage was bare, save for metallic-looking, thinly hung drapes that served as the wings on both stage right and left. This seemed to bode well for me, as I settled into my place, for it signaled to me a work that would rely mostly on the famed Bard’s musicality for language to set the scene, and paint the story of the famed star-crossed lovers through wordsmithing alone, instead of on superfluous dressings of set or props.

As the play opened with Hippolyta and Theseus’ entrances, I was immediately struck by the flamboyance of their traditional Chinese garb that was usually associated with the Chinese theatrical styles of Kunqu (崑曲) or Xiqu (戏曲). Despite having been preempted by the programme that aspects of Eastern (and/or Southeast Asian) forms of performance would be incorporated into the piece, what still struck me was how the choice of costuming for the actors did not sit entirely well with me. As you may well know, Your Majesties, from your travels throughout the globe, the physical manifestations of specific cultural aspects bear more significance within each cultural context, and bear more significance than the sum of these parts could speak for. In essence, if in modern stagings and theatrical choices, a choice was made to displace certain aspects of these cultures and fit them into modern stagings of work, it would have to be carefully researched and choreographed, and the significance of displacing such culturally specific aspects would need to be understood by the audience witnessing such works as well. I was unsure if indeed the significance of the choice to place such cultural artforms in this piece (other than for the reason of showcasing the students’ training) was sufficiently communicated to the audience.

This doubt and its attendant questions would continue to haunt me throughout the rest of the piece, namely, the internal debate of whether appropriating piecemeal aspects of another theatrical form would potentially signal (intentionally or not) a lack of care towards that particular theatrical form’s culture. One of the subversive functions of humour is in fact its use as a smokescreen to hide discomfort and disagreement, and throughout, even as the audience were thoroughly amused and engaged in loud guffaws throughout the performance, I would continue to wonder if the humour performed by audience members was truly amusement or to veil questions in the minds of other members of audience which were similar to mine.

As the play progressed, with the introduction of the famous pair of lovers, the Mechanicals, as well as the entourage and entrance of your Graces, beloved Oberon and beautiful Titania, the depths of the actors’ preparation and training soon became apparent at how they portrayed both Athenian and fey characters in all of their marvel and mystery. Wan Ahmad as Oberon and Ruthi Lalrinawmi as Titania shone in their portrayals of your regal selves, bearing all the air of regality and gravitas that monarchs of your magical and royal bearing should have (perhaps the actor playing you, proud Oberon, just a tad more so). The lovers as well were both well-matched and well-casted, for though they did not bedazzle with an innate lovers’ chemistry, their portrayal of “the course of true love never did run smooth” led the audience on a wild, emotional, roller-coaster ride that did indeed reach the heart of this writer; we were made to feel for the lovers, as if this journey to find true love was taking place in this very day and age.

Oliver S.K. Wu as Lysander did stand out in particular (whether for good or for ill I know not) as not the conventional handsome, charming and innocently committed lover that he usually is stylised as, but instead as a youth that, besotted with Hermia as he is, knows only the love he has for Hermia (and later, though misplaced, for Helena) and nothing else. Having not entirely imbibed the fluency of the Bard’s flair for language, he comes across as not entirely alluring, not entirely enticing, but perhaps even as a little ignorant and vexatious; these outward affectations of his shone through in particular during his expressions of love, his effusions of longing and how he pines for Hermia in their exchange where they prepare to rest for the night, to which Hermia famously responds “Lysander riddles very prettily” but still rejects his offer to share a bed. But despite the portrayal of Lysander as such, it reveals a different side to the Athenian youth that perhaps is less-oft focused upon: his very youth in itself. Many an audience forget how little in age the lovers in the Bard’s many plays actually are (Romeo and Juliet’s ages as being 16 and 13 respectively are often glossed over), and being possessed of such youth, a level of impulsivity and devil-may-care-ness should indeed be present in their demeanour. It was this aspect of the Athenian youth that struck at me, O Faerie King and Queene, and perhaps you can judge for yourself if indeed the Athenian youth behaved as such when you were witness to this fateful night of love and merrymaking.

When all has been put to rights, with Bottom’s ass-head removed and the lovers in rightful arms, the play finally arrived at journey’s end, ensuing in the well-known play-within-a-play. The staging of the Mechanicals’ rendition of Pyramus and Thisbe no doubt saw great favour with the audience, sending them into fits of uproarious laughter. In particular, Wan Ahmad’s dual role of Snout the Tinker gave rise to most of the mirth in the scene (for me, at least). His spell of the Singlish vernacular incorporated into the Bard’s vocabulary, coupled with his absurd and awkward portrayal of Snout and the Wall (in the scene where Pyramus and Thisbe speak through a crack in the wall) lent much to the scene’s comedic value and was a marvelous display of Ahmad’s versatility and adept acting skill. The Mechanicals as a whole worked well as an ensemble, snug and fit within their collective role as a jester for the play, but seemed to reflect little, if any, of the incorporation of the Wayang Wong style of movement as foreshadowed in the programme.

Overall, this experience (a first for me, having not seen adaptations or even traditional stagings of A Midsommer Nights Dreame prior to this, and as such, should my opinions reveal my epistemological lack, I crave your pardon, Your Graces) of watching A Midsommer Nights Dreame was indeed a mirthful evening out. The incorporations of the forms of Indian theatre, Chinese opera, and Wayong Wong (as laid out in the programme) were noticeable at times, yet not as much as I would have hoped, for being aware that graduands from the ITI intensely train and focus on the core foundations and applications of such forms into the stagings of pieces they create, I thought to see such forms more keenly and intentionally applied within the piece. Moreover, the question of whether selective application of culture and more “native” or “traditional” theatrical forms into selected parts of theatre constitute some form of appropriation remains a doubt that pervades my mind. Yet, if artistic intention is brought into the thorny debate, and if the intention was for mirth, laughter, joy and a night of merriment out at the theatre for all audiences involved, then such concerns perhaps matter not, for with the awareness that these are students of an institution famed for incorporating more traditional art- and theatrical forms into their movement-based actor training, then it stands to reason that proper ethical clearance should be been given and researched upon for the incorporation of such forms into a piece of theatre that comes from a different culture.

No matter the case, dear faerie king and queen, I now lay down my quill, having given you a a summarised account of my human experiences on that night where the story of A Midsommer Nights Dreame came to life again. May your reign be ever joyful and just, and that the fey realm comes to human shores once more, bringing with it the magic of yet another lovers’ tale.

With all my heart,

Philippe

William Shakespeare’s ethereal and earthy romantic comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was presented by the 2022 graduating cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) with a traditional Asian spin. It was led by award-winning veteran director Aarne Neeme and featured a cast of 12 actor-students from seven countries.

It ran from 3 -5 November 2022, 7.30PM every day and an additional 2PM matinee on Saturday, 5th Nov.

For more information, read more about the staging here.

To read the digital programme, click here.

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Philippe Pang

Philippe Pang

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A communicator at heart; a manager at hand, but always the speaker of the truth for those who cannot.