The Taiwanese theatre group ramp up the soap opera potential in Shakespeare through their farcical and madcap adaptation of the Bard’s history plays.
Think it’s hard keeping up with the Kardashians? Shakespeare’s Wild Sisters Group will have you know that they’ve got nothing on the House of Plantaganet. Directed by Wang Chia-Ming, the entirety of the War of the Roses is charted in a loose, 2-hour adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Richard III. But don’t come in expecting a stuffy, Mandarin translation – combining countless elements of theatre, ranging from choreographed fights to lip syncing, Blood & Rose Ensemble has taken history into its own hands and ramped up the soap opera potential in this royal family feud.
If you’re familiar with English history, the War of the Roses was essentially a hundred years of infighting between opposing factions within a single house. Each member of the family comes with their own set of idiosyncrasies and oddities, new regicidal schemes are regularly hatched, while marriages of convenience to build goodwill between potential allies carefully constructed. All of this primes Blood & Rose Ensemble for an exaggerated, farcical presentation, such as a K-drama tune literally score the meeting between lovers Margaret of Anjou (Angie Wang) and the Earl of Suffolk (Chang Yao-Jen).
The repetition of history is taken to absurd extremes when the generations old battle between the Houses of Lancaster and York are repeated over and over again by each successive set of sons swearing revenge (Wang Ching-Chun and Hung Wei-Yao), each fight sequence increasingly elaborate and ridiculous. The use of different dialects and registers used by various characters only further serves to highlight class prejudice. Oliver Chong, in particular, does a fantastic job of playing up the familiar Singaporean mishmash of English, Mandarin and everything in-between when playing the deformed Richard III, adding a layer of incongruity between his speech and the other characters to further develop the shunned monarch.Throughout the play, the cast uses unconventional instruments to provide live sound effects, well-rehearsed and perfectly synced to actions, while each actor’s unquestioning dedication to their caricature-like characters only adds to the laugh out loud moments in the script, and their over the top antics are almost always a joy to witness.
Beyond the family drama however, Blood & Rose Ensemble also concerns itself with more serious issues of sensationalism and social media obsession. When Blood & Rose Ensemble begins, audience members are already given the unexpected instruction to whip out their phones and take photos as and when they feel like it. Its unique staging further adds to this theme – the stage itself comprises of a cross shaped platform, with audiences seated right in the action itself, eliminating the perceived distance of a proscenium stage.
Characters are seen broadcasting livestreams of the royal drama, from Edward IV (Chao Yi-Lan) lecherously wooing Elizabeth I (Huang Pei-Shu), while a botched speech from the inept Henry VI (Hana Tsai) is quickly dubbed over. Meanwhile, even the fourth wall is breached at times, with Richard III and Anne Neville (Shih Hsuen-Huei) playing up their speeches when an ‘audience’ is present, and breaking character when not. Disembodied voices resembling online comments are used to create the sense of social media netizens whose only motive is to be entertained, best seen in the opening scene with a flurry of reactions watching Joan of Arc burned at the stake. One is immediately reminded of the prevalence of fake news in today’s world, with the idea of politics as one big dog and pony show at the forefront of our minds, more akin to reality tv than actual television could ever aspire to be.
Blood & Rose Ensemble is not without its weaknesses – even in mining plenty of comedy throughout its run, adapting the content of four full length plays is a daunting task, and its sheer content causes some moments and scenes to drag on just a little too long. There are times where the play also seems to lose sight of the message it is trying to bring across through its localisation – one isn’t quite sure how the throwaway mentions of the Esplanade and Singapore relate back, while an entire scene literally involves the cast taking a break to eat helps further emphasise the show’s staged nature, but simultaneously breaks the momentum and makes it difficult to re-immerse one’s self in the remainder of the play.
That being said, Blood & Rose Ensemble perhaps remains one of the most fun and accessible adaptations of Shakespeare’s history plays to date (which are certainly not known for their comedic potential). By spinning them into a farcical and almost parodic adaptation, it is also one of the most brutally honest in exposing the War of the Roses as a glorified family soap opera, yet still feels strangely relevant in today’s unreliability of truth across the media and the lack of faith in modern politics. Prepare to be tickled by the abundance of humour throughout this play, but don’t be surprised if you also end up pricked by the thorny issues it covers.
Photos by Tuckys Photography, Courtesy of Esplanade – Theatre on the Bay
Performance attended 23/2/18
Blood & Rose Ensemble plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio as part of Huayi 2018 from 23rd – 25th February. Tickets available from the Esplanade