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Interview: Erwin Shah Ismail and Daniel Jenkins on The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)

In a single lifetime, it’s difficult to get a chance to experience all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays, whether it’s the most heartbreaking of tragedies, or the most hilarious of comedies. So why not take the prime opportunity the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) has provided now, as they stage The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), in a single night?

Directed by Daniel Jenkins, and starring Erwin Shah Ismail, Tia Guttensohn and Shane Mardjuki, get ready to settle in for a roller coaster night that takes you through this madcap attempt to present the essence of each play, and leave you a little more educated on the Bard’s works, or simply breathless with laughter, a perfect antidote to our dreary times. Find out more about director Daniel Jenkins and cast member Erwin Shah Ismail’s experience with Shakespeare and life in the pandemic, with our full interview with them below:

Daniel Jenkins

Bakchormeeboy: You’ve just come off directing SRT’s Lungs, and now, you’re attempting a very different production altogether. You’ve shown so much versatility as a director over the years – what would you say is your approach towards making a production the best it can be?  

Daniel: Lungs and The Complete Works are such completely different types of shows and yet it has been refreshing to work on both. As both an actor and a director I have a unique perspective on creating a production, being able to see it clearly from both sides, so my approach is always actor driven, trying to create an open and expressive atmosphere within the rehearsal room so that everyone feels safe and able to experiment, contribute, take chances and make choices. Creating a production is a collaborative effort and although ultimately the buck stops with me, I know as an actor I appreciate it when a director allows me to discuss, offer and be part of the creative process. With The Complete Works we have had so much fun inventing and when there is laughter within the rehearsal room it is always a good sign that things are working. 

Bakchormeeboy: If I’m not wrong, Erwin, Shane and Tia have never worked together on the same theatre production. Especially with the COVID-19 restrictions, has it been a difficult process getting them to build up that chemistry and onstage interplay with each other?  

Daniel: Not at all. They are all such wonderful actors that building relationships was never a problem. The acting scene here is so small that most people know each other even if they haven’t actually all worked together in a production, so building chemistry was easy. I’ve acted with Shane many, many times and he is a good friend and a wonderful actor. I have acted with Erwin and Tia before and directed them both in different productions so I am familiar with their many strengths and I knew they would all be perfect for The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). We had so much fun rehearsing this production that it was a joy working and creating with them all.  

Bakchormeeboy: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) is a comedic rush through the Bard’s plays. How much prior knowledge do audience members need before going in? Or can the jokes and references be appreciated even for someone who has never encountered any Shakespeare in their life?  

Daniel: The joy of this production is that whether you are a Shakespeare scholar or a complete newbie this show will still appeal and be wonderfully entertaining. There is so much visual humour and we have hopefully thrown in enough surprises and slapstick to make even the strongest anti-Shakespeare audience member laugh. And the show is in fact very informative, not only do you learn about all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays, but you find out more about his life and the period in which he was writing, and if that isn’t enough, I guarantee that you will laugh your socks off at the fun filled nonsense on stage and leave the theatre smiling. We all could do with a little cheering up at the moment and The Complete Works of Wiliam Shakespeare (Abridged) is the perfect medicine!  

Bakchormeeboy: You’ve always had a longstanding relationship with SRT, be it as actor, leading the youth programme, or a director. How would you say SRT has evolved over the years, comparing now to the earlier days when you first started working with them?  

Daniel: I have been very fortunate with the work I have done with SRT both as an actor and a director, and I am always inspired by their desire, determination and passion for creating quality theatre despite the very difficult times we are living in.  Their productions are always built on a desire to create quality, professional theatre. From their work with The Little Company, creating theatre for young audiences, the Young Company, the Inclusive Young Company and their support of  youth and learning engagement, to bringing the very best scripts to a Singapore audience, they continue to lead the way and raise the bar. What impresses me is that SRT are always looking for ways to grow, develop and adapt. Be that creating digital content, expanding their youth and learning departments or working towards a more inclusive theatre experience for all, they continue to evolve and develop. 

Bakchormeeboy: You lead SRT’s youth theatre programme, and with this production, there’s Tia, who’s relatively younger than her co-stars. How do you imagine the youths of today will carry on the torch for Singapore theatre in future? Do you think there are certain individuals or companies doing great work?  

Daniel: For our final open dress rehearsal of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), we organised a reunion for all our The Young Company alumni. It was a great way for us all to reconnect, to build connections, to network and come together as part of the SRT family. What made me most proud was that out of the alumni that attended over 75% of them were still working in the entertainment industry as actors, writers, creators, musical directors, directors and theatre makers.

It really showed how important The Young Company has been in encouraging and supporting young people who are interested in starting a career in the industry. I really believe that the future of Singapore theatre continues to go from strength to strength. There are so many more opportunities now for young people to create their own work either in collaboration with a theatre company or on their own, and so many more chances to learn and develop as part of a residency programme with most of the leading theatre companies, so i think the future is definitely bright. 

Bakchormeeboy: Back in 2020, you were one of the people who spearheaded the Coronalogues digital show. With live theatre still getting back on its feet in terms of audience numbers, do you think that we will ever return to the way things used to be, or that the scene will evolve with these unprecedented times, due to the unsustainability of live shows for so many companies?  

Daniel: I hope we can return to some kind of normal. Despite the terrible impact the pandemic has had on our industry, it has forced theatre makers to really look at how we create work and the ways in which stories can be told, and there have been some wonderfully impressive and imaginative productions produced around the world. If anything it has allowed us to embrace technology, rethink how we might include it in live theatre, as well as how we can connect with our audiences either in person or digitally. Every cloud has a silver lining and this development and evolution of theatre and live performance must be embraced. 

Bakchormeeboy: Shakespeare’s plays hail from the 1600s; why is his work still so relevant today? 

Daniel: Of course the stock answer is that they contain universal themes that are still relevant today, that they deal with humanity and teach us about ourselves and the issues we all continue to deal with. But most of all they are brilliant stories, with great characters, and plot twists. The more we can expose young people to Shakespeare’s work the better. With The Complete Works we have made a conscious effort to create something that feels very contemporary and will appeal to young people, the next generation of theatre and Shakespeare lovers.  

Erwin Shah Ismail

For Erwin 

Bakchormeeboy: You’ve performed Shakespeare with SRT before, starring in Romeo and Juliet and Othello. What makes this work so different from the previous ones? 

Erwin: No different, actually. But we do talk a lot faster when we can afford to… because we only have 97 minutes! 

Bakchormeeboy: Did you ever fear reading or studying Shakespeare as a student, whether as a teen or in Lasalle? If you did fear Shakespeare, how or why did that attitude change? 

Erwin: When I was in Secondary 3, I was put into the Literature Stream, not by choice if I recall. I was certainly intimidated by Shakespeare’s language and honestly, I struggled to comprehend a lot of it then. I still do, these days, haha, but probably much less of a struggle now. But there’s much to say about being first fed the language at 15, and then at 22 when I did Twelfth Night (Feste/Fabian) and then at 25 when I first performed Mercutio for Wild Rice and now at a very young age of 35 in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). I guess the love for the language grows on you. 

Bakchormeeboy: In this production, you play a multitude of roles. How do you ensure that you don’t get mixed up with all the different characters you play?  

Erwin: During the rehearsal process, I have been able to give each character a bodily posture which in turn feeds the texture of its voice. The costumes we wear also help differentiate it for us and the audience. 

Bakchormeeboy: With the COVID-19 restrictions in place, what do you feel was the main challenge posed to you as an actor, whether it’s with regards to this production or in general? 

Erwin: The final piece of the puzzle: the attendance from the audience. The most heartbreaking thing about how the current climate has affected actors is simply the fact that the numbers in attendance have drastically dropped. Yes, it is also something that affects production costs for producers etc but simply knowing that a house can never be filled to its brim is simply demoralising. (No matter how hard you work or how good the end product may be.) I guess it’s a mental challenge we need to overcome and get used to.  

Bakchormeeboy: What do you personally think would be your dream Shakespearean role to play? Conversely, what would be the most daunting to play?  

Erwin: Can’t answer at this point with regards to dream Shakespearean role. Sorry. I’m currently thinking about Taming of the Shrew and how it may be problematic in terms of gender and power today. I have yet to see a production where it’s all male cast or all female cast. Apparently, it’s been done before. Sorry, this may not answer your question but I thought I’d share that. 

Bakchormeeboy: Over the pandemic, has it been more difficult to get acting gigs? Is it still viable to imagine being a full-time actor to survive in this pandemic climate?  

Erwin: If I’m being honest, not much has changed for me, of which I’m grateful for. The only difference is the medium. In the absence of performing live on stage, be it shows with local theatre companies or the Waterworld Live Stunt show which I last performed in March 2020, I have been fortunate to pick up several screen work for television. The thing about being a theatre actor is that both mediums (stage/screen) are indivisible. I still do voice-over work too. 

Also, I have started teaching and directing at LASALLE as an adjunct lecturer for the BA(HONS) Musical Theatre programme. I am grateful that my alma mater recognises my work experiences and credits, giving me the opportunity to empower students as I facilitate their learning journey. 

Bakchormeeboy: Shakespeare’s plays hail from the 1600s; why is his work still so relevant today?  

Erwin: Shakespeare is an absolute genius when it comes to the complexities of human life and the variety of human beings in his plays. That is what makes his work still relevant today. 

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) runs from 30th October 2021 at KC Arts Centre. Tickets available here

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