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SRT’s Shakespeare In The Park 2023: An Interview with ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ director Guy Unsworth, and actors Julie Wee and Ghafir Akbar

As the weather grows ever warmer and the days stretch ever longer, there’s at least one moment of respite that’s looming on the horizon – the long-awaited comeback of Singapore Repertory Theatre’s (SRT) Shakespeare In The Park series, which makes a triumphant return to Fort Canning Park this week, with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

With five years between the previous edition (Julius Caesar, 2018) and now, anticipation runs high for one of the Bard’s most well-known and beloved comedies. Shakespeare In The Park has never spared any expense for a total and complete transformation of Fort Canning, not only building an entire stage and rigging from scratch, but also filling the surrounding area with food vendors, a bar, and essentially, turn it into a lively, bustling, festival village to welcome audience members to experience the show in the most comfortable and celebratory manner possible.

“It’s a big operation, and a creative collaboration between so many people, and we’ve been working for over five weeks just setting everything up,” says director Guy Unsworth. “Even though I’ve done other Shakespeare in the Park productions before, this time around, it’s of a whole other scale, where we’re creating this fantasy dreamworld for the audience to immerse themselves in and watch the action unfold. I’m excited to see how it all comes together.”

Joining us in conversation are actors Julie Wee and Ghafir Akbar, who play Hippolyta/Titania, and Theseus/Oberon respectively. Coincidentally, both Julie and Ghafir were also in the previous edition of Shakespeare in the Park, where in Julius Caesar, they played conspirators Cassius and Brutus.

“It feels really good to be back. Now that we’re in the actual performance space itself, everything is really coming together and falling into place,” says Ghafir. “The process of working on Shakespeare in the Park has been really enjoyable, from being in the rehearsal room unpacking each line, before blocking and rehearsing the scenes. And by the time we get here, we’re ready for it, and we’re not overwhelmed by the space, or the mammoth set, or the intricate costumes.”

“This is a very pleasurable show that’s easy to follow and listen to, like the rhyming couplets are there and there’s a lot of humour, and as Titania, I get to explore so much breadth and depth to my performance,” says Julie. “There is a lot of fun that comes from the contrast between the human and fairy world, from the costumes to the physicality, and you become curious about the ways these different ecosystems function. And I really relish the moments when the audience comes in, and I’m onstage, I watch them enjoying their picnics, sometimes popping a champagne cork during crucial moments or serious lines, the wind in your hair and the moon in the sky, and it makes you take a moment to just appreciate it all.”

All of this is achieved through the efforts of a whopping 120 cast and crew to put on the show and bring the Bard’s words to life. “I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as the production crew and stage management, who’ve been here at the park since the very beginning, building things and running about in the hot sun, and they can still come to the actors and ask if we need anything and if we’re ok,” adds Julie. “Right now, we’re learning to enjoy being onstage after so many weeks of rehearsals, because so much of it is having fun. I remember previous editions of Shakespeare in the Park where I would literally find myself smiling as I walk from the carpark to the stage, and I would just think, ‘wow, I’m really happy to be doing this!'”

Julie also happens to be the poster child of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though with the way it’s been styled, you wouldn’t be faulted if you didn’t recognise her. “My own mother couldn’t believe it was me when I showed her,” laughs Julie. “Having your face on a poster somehow never loses the thrill, and I got so excited when I first saw the poster in public, I was telling the uncle driving the taxi I was in and pointing ‘that’s me!'”

“It’s testament to how much work has gone into marketing, since my own friends who don’t usually watch theatre have learnt of it…and even asked me if I wanted to come along, not realising that I was in it,” says Ghafir. “There’s still an overarching sense of excitement that Shakespeare in the Park is back. Five years is plenty of time, and so many people have never been. Now’s their chance, because how often do you allow yourself to just get out there under the stars to watch a performance with a cheese platter and a drink. Even if you’re afraid of the language, we still promise a visual feast for the eyes.”

Director Guy Unsworth

While A Midsummer Night’s Dream is still very much written in Elizabethan English, it remains one of Shakespeare’s least daunting and more accessible works, primarily due to its comedic nature, romantic storyline, and fantastic setting. “One thing about A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that it feels a bit like the Bard’s greatest hits album,” says Guy. “You get music, you get rhyme, you get magic, you get beautiful romantic verse, you get funny comic sequences, and all of that comes thick and fast and keeps switching it up. It’s a brilliant play for anyone experiencing Shakespeare for the first time, and especially for young people. I was doing some research the other day, and realised Shakespeare is likely to have written this when his own kid was about 12. So honestly? It’s a play that even a 12 year old should be able to enjoy, and the Shakespeare play that’s sure to get your heart racing.”

“Not to mention, we have quite a few young people involved in this production, who know their pop culture and TikTok and memes well, and we were spending a whole weekend just world-building and crafting the world that we wanted to occupy, that reflected society today, so it doesn’t feel totally alien or ancient to audience members,” he adds. “We’ve spent a lot of time trying to decode and debunk the idea that Shakespeare is hard, and stage this version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that we would have appreciated when we were younger, so I hope that comes across in the show.”

From left: cast members Timothy Wan, Krish Natarajan, Julie Wee and Ghafir Akbar

Beyond appealing to the youths, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an important watch simply for the joy it brings, and the power of dreaming. “I was just talking to Julie about how the news these days is quite depressing,” says Ghafir. “In my dual role as the ‘real world’ king Theseus and the fairy king Oberon, it almost seems like a means for escapism, not frivolously, but to escape with hope of change, catharsis, and wonder to bring back to the real world. I think that’s what theatre does for audience members, and allows them that space to dream, to imagine possibilities when you have fun.”

“Compared to watching television and film, which has already been edited and filmed, theatre is very clearly happening in the here and now, a live communal activity between people onstage and the audience, and in the park, you feel together, laugh together, or even eat together, and you notice when things go slightly off or respond to what’s happening onstage, it’s a privilege to be in that environment,” says Julie. “It’s something special that they can only experience when they take a chance and venture into the park, and when they’re there, then that’s where we come in to make the magic happen.”

“One thing I will always think of is how many students we receive during Shakespeare in the Park, who watch the text they’ve been studying come to life before their eyes,” adds Julie. “During Julius Caesar, there was a group of boys who ended up yelling ‘Et tu, Brute?’ when Caesar is stabbed, and while it probably annoyed the audience, for the cast we were just like ‘this is amazing! they’re so into it!’. Literature may be an optional subject, but what I love is that SRT makes it so palatable and so appealing by creating such productions. Even for myself as an actor, I find Shakespeare hard, and that’s why I love that I can do the lifting with my fellow cast mates and creative team for the students, and hope that they leave the theatre enjoying themselves, and going ‘hey, plays are pretty cool.'”

“What makes this such a special play, it’s really about how you have so many different groups involve – the humans, the mechanicals, the fairies…and how they all end up bumping into each other in this mystical forest, and that’s when the magic happens,” says Ghafir. “It’s a parallel to theatre, and having been in a pandemic for so long, I feel very privileged to do what I love with people I respect and admire to create something magical, before dispersing again. In the park, when we finally premiere, where the cast is onstage, the audience is seated, the lights and sound and effects play, and all these elements come together and the show comes to life, that’s the magic. You’re seated among so many people, you might share wine, cheese plates get passed around, and the magic comes from having this communal shared experience.”

“During the pandemic, beyond the fear that my career had completely ground to a halt, I also missed having friends and family being together in close physical proximity. And now that we have the chance to do all that again,” concludes Guy. “While there’s pressure to deliver, that’s every show isn’t it? So instead what we feel is excitement to be doing this again. Theatre is such an intrinsically live art form, and having everyone in the park in a space where we’re doing comedy is so special and so unique, where we tell a joke and when it lands, the audience very clearly responds with laughter and joy and applause. And we begin a two way conversation, only made possible by experiencing this together.”

Photo Credit: Singapore Repertory Theatre

A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays from 3rd to 28th May 2023 at Fort Canning Park. Tickets available here

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