Romeo and Juliet, meet Rama and Shinta
MALAYSIA – As part of the 2018 KL Butoh Fest, Nyoban Kan and KL Shakespeare Players collaborated on a brand new production that interweaves two of literature’s most famous star-crossed lovers into a single show.
The Japanese art of butoh, by definition, resists definition, and in A Tale of Star-Crossed Lovers, we see this on full display, as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet comes face to face with Rama and Shinta of the epic Ramayana. Directed by Lee Swee Keong, both tales are deconstructed to their barest essence and tweaked to showcase how these stories transcend time, space and geography to remind us of the pains of love.
The stage set-up is simple, with just three chairs in a designated space within the black box space. The performance opens with Javanese dancers Cahyo Sandhidea and Selvia Arbella arriving onstage to play Rama and Shinta, heralded by the sounds of traditional gamelan music. We are then introduced to performers Lim Soon Heng, Lim Kien Lee, Hana Nadira, Zul Zamir and Sandee Chew making up the cast for the Romeo and Juliet segment of the performance, as we hear the repetitive chanting of ‘Montague’ and ‘Capulet’, the respective houses of the tragedy. With this brief introduction, we already become aware of the intercultural, cross-border nature of this production, prepared for the wild ride it’ll take us on.
A Tale of Star-Crossed Lovers isn’t afraid to mess with established norms and tweak the narrative and stories as it sees fit – perhaps most obviously, Romeo and Juliet are both played by male performers, a concept that as blasphemous as it sounds, perhaps brings out an even stronger, politically charged overtone owing to the often tragic outcomes of queer couples in media. While dancing, Rama and Shinta exchange roses, a distinctly Western concept and prominent symbol in Romeo and Juliet, suggesting the lines between stories has blurred, one bleeding into the other as a universal narrative of star-crossed lovers through millennia.
It is by drawing such parallels between the stories and deconstructing the narratives that the performers then find in them the power to retell, reconstruct and re-appropriate – Romeo and Juliet do not end in death, but in a wedding. Romeo is the one who has a veil over his head as opposed to Juliet, and with a camera phone at the ready to photograph, record and broadcast their newfound happiness and sorrows to the world, while the Javanese dancers too reunite and find joy in each other.
With an ethereal soundscape and interpretive dance movements, the production teases out the most primal elements of both stories. The power of theatre lies in the ability to reclaim and reinterpret as one sees fit, and through A Tale of Star-Crossed Lovers, Nyoban Kan and KL Shakespeare Players have produced a thought-provoking work that allows audience members to see past the hard and fast rules and narrative forces driving familiar tales of doomed lovers, realising that god-given fate itself can be overcome by understanding the mechanics of the structure, and let everyone have a fighting chance at a happy ending.
A Tale of Star-Crossed Lovers played as part of the KL Butoh Festival from 9th to 10th November 2018 at the Black Box, Publika.