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★★★★☆ Review: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) by Singapore Repertory Theatre

No fear Shakespeare on speed.

As the most prolific writer in the English language, with stories that have lasted centuries and plays passed down for generations, it seems fair that most theatregoers should be expected to know of some of his writing. Truth be told however, while most of us can at least vaguely remember the plots of one or two assigned texts from our school days, few to none of us can really claim to know, or have even read every single one of the Bard’s works.

Enter The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), a theatrical crash course to all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays, performed within the span of a single evening in just 97 minutes (there’s even a timer onstage counting down to prove it). And of all the local companies to stage it, it’s appropriate that it’s Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT), known for both bringing in internationally-acclaimed productions, and staging their own highly-lauded Shakespearean plays over the years. The Complete Works however, is not a strait-laced summary of the plays, but rather, intended as a loving parody that weaves in contemporary pop culture, absurd interpretations of the scripts, and plenty of slapstick humour.

Paying homage to SRT’s original intent of staging it at Pasir Panjang Power Station, Wong Chee Wai’s set transforms the KC Arts Centre into a makeshift version of that, with paint splattered zinc walls, metal ladders and steel scaffolding, and even street art of Shakespeare in shades onstage. Certainly, it’s the theatre as we’ve never experienced it before, almost like a grungy, underground club thanks to Gabriel Chan’s multicoloured flashing lights, and Ng Jing’s bass-heavy track as the show begins. In fact, the designers are constantly pushed to show off their range, adapting to the multitude of styles the play demands. Tan Jia Hui’s costumes go from Victorian garb to snakeskin bodysuits; Ng Jing’s music from hip hop to classical; and Gabriel Chan’s lighting setting the stage for choreography fit for a music video, to bathing actors in powerful spotlights as they prepare to deliver an epic soliloquy.

Helming this production is director Daniel Jenkins, who leads his cast of Erwin Shah Ismail, Tia Andrea Guttensohn, Shane Mardjuki and Dennis Sofian to perform this marathon production. Coming into the theatre, it’s hard to predict exactly how any of the scenes will go. From a grisly, cannibalistic cooking show, to encapsulating an entire play in a rap number (complete with being dressed in furs and bling), it’s impossible to predict how these over the top reinterpretations will go as the cast tears through Shakespeare’s bibliography.

In short, it’s nothing less than chaotic, something that is further supported by the loose structure of the play, and the lack of any particular order to the plays. While it does work to bring out the most absurd parts of Shakespeare’s plays, one imagines that director Daniel Jenkins could have reined in the chaotic energy more. That energy could be further sharpened and refined beyond its unbridled state to leave a more powerful impact on the audience and make a stronger statement about Shakespeare’s many plays. Consider, for example, how the Scottish play (cursed be the name) is reimagined as a folk song, complete with terrible Scottish accents, ginger beards and tartan kilts, in stark contrast to the more creative presentations, such as cobbling together the history plays as a single avant-garde art performance.

This is a play that is incredibly taxing on the actors’ energy. When the timer starts and the show begins, the actors unleash their 100% as they amp up the physical comedy and over-the-top elements. All four cast members do an admirable job of keeping the audience engaged at every turn, regardless if they’re ripping through Romeo & Juliet, or performing a laugh-out-loud sequence in between scenes while the rest of the cast do their costume changes. It is no mean feat to keep this up for the entire play, and they seem almost tireless in their performance, effectively bridging the gap and loose ends to keep the momentum going.

Given that they’re on the clock, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword with how most of these performances cop out with just how truncated they are (some even merely mentioned, but not performed), and takes away from the thrill of the countdown. This feels especially egregious in the play’s final act, as they end off on Hamlet. While the cast do manage to perform an abridged version of the play within the time limit, with 3 minutes left on the clock, they pad out the runtime by doing it at double, even triple the speed, making the stakes feel far less than if they had finished it on the dot.

In short, think of this like a sketch show, poking fun at the Bard’s tales with a mix of highbrow and lowbrow humour, and quite simply, is a fun night out, buoyed by the cast’s commitment to the silly seriousness of their characters throughout the run. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) definitely won’t make you a Shakespeare expert overnight, but you’ll likely walk away with a few new revelations, and perhaps, with a little less fear of Shakespeare than before.

Photo Credit: Singapore Repertory Theatre

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

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