Arts Review Singapore SRT

★★★★★ Review: Shakespeare In The Park 2023 -A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Singapore Repertory Theatre

SRT makes magic happen under the moonlight with visually stunning production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

CategoryScore (out of 10)
Direction (Guy Unsworth)9
Composer (Mervin Wong) 9
Performance (Ghafir Akbar, Julie Wee, Daniel Jenkins, Natalie Yeap, Timothy Wan, Vanessa Kee, Nicholas Chan, Isabella Chiam, Crenshaw Yeo, Vester Ng, Dennis Sofian, Rino Junior John, Krish Natarajan) 9
Production Design (Richard Kent)10
Lighting Design (Gabriel Chan)9
Sound Design (Ctrl Fre@k – Lee Yew Jin)9
Costumes/Hair/Makeup (Richard Kent/Ashley Lim/Bobbie Ng)9
Choreography (Tan Rui Shan) 9
Fight Choreography (Gordon Choy)9
Total82/90 (91%)
Final Score:★★★★★

Staging Shakespeare in the Park in Singapore’s Fort Canning Park has never been an easy task. Yet, Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) somehow still insists on and persists in producing it year after year, all for the love of literature and promoting the Bard’s plays. With their 30th anniversary in 2023, it feels right that they’re finally bringing it back after 5 long years. After all, Shakespeare in the Park isn’t just another show in the company’s lineup – it’s a theatrical event to look forward to each time, an almost magical phenomenon that brings audience members from all walks of life together to the park to witness the spectacle.

In a post-pandemic world, and the first Shakespeare in the Park since COVID-19, SRT’s main goal seems to be to give the audience a great night out, whether you’re with friends or family. This year’s Shakespeare in the Park then shines the spotlight on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a tried and tested classic of the programme, that’s been completely reinvented and reimagined for 2023. Directed by Guy Unsworth, the comedy is now set in the fictional industrial city of Athenia, where machinery and refineries reign supreme and the magic of mother nature seems to have been all but forgotten. But all that is about to change one night, when a motley crew of humans find themselves lost in the woods, a perfect time for the fairy folk to come out and play, and cause a little Midsummer’s mayhem.

Shakespeare is often feared by audience members for its Renaissance English. But under Unsworth’s direction, this version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream feels like one of the most accessible versions of the play yet, with all the characters clearly differentiated and established, no matter how many lines they have, in their costumes, physicality and speech, each scene easy to follow and well-segmented. This production is all about ensuring comfort and peak entertainment, impressing from the moment one enters the park and bears witness to the magnificent set.

One of the most impressive aspects of every Shakespeare in the Park is how the team manages to build an entire city out of nothing each time. In this edition, led by production designer Richard Kent, the city of Athenia is just as professionally crafted, looking like something straight out of a theme park, complete with lofty towers spewing smoke, ladders for actors to climb up and down, pipes and other factory paraphernalia, and a long runway that stretches out into the audience. It’s a cold city full of steely rules, seemingly devoid of love or emotions, and we wonder how these steam works full of workers in blue jumpsuits and armed soldiers will become the space where love blooms true.

The city’s personality is perfectly encapsulated in its leader Theseus (Ghafir Akbar), who lords over his employees, Amazonian wife Hippolyta (Julie Wee) and own family with an iron fist. On the surface, he’s a progressive boss, smiling and posing with a golden shovel and potted plant as proof of Athenia’s sustainability goals, before the props are hurriedly tossed aside and he resumes his unflinching, immovable stance, determining who should be betrothed to who.

It’s no wonder then that the young Athenian lovers under his draconian rules hatch a plan to elope in the woods, to escape their suffocating home. As Hermia, Natalie Yeap may be small, but showcases a fiery personality and big heart, while Vanessa Kee, as Helena, isn’t afraid to make a fool of herself as she grovels at Demetrius’ feet. Newcomer Nicholas Chan, as Demetrius, does well to enunciate his words and maintain the guise of a proper gentleman, while Timothy Wan, as Lysander, brings a determined force to his love for Hermia that belies his otherwise boyish looks.

Elsewhere in Athenia, the bumbling Mechanicals provide a much-needed source of comic relief from the family drama. Led by Isabella Chiam as Quince, this bumbling group of Mechanicals (Crenshaw Yeo, Vester Ng, Dennis Sofian, Rino Junior John, Daniel Jenkins) make for a fun bunch of side characters who endear themselves easily to us as they argue over roles or express shock and reluctance to play the fool. Daniel Jenkins in particular shines as Bottom, hitting every one of the character’s most overenthusiastic desire to play every role, exasperatingly full of energy, while his fellow Mechanicals groan in contrast.

By this point, the sun has set, setting the stage for its next act – transforming Athenia into the mystical woods. Beyond its shiny metal surface, Athenia hides plenty of secrets, and pulls out all the stops. With the moon high in the sky, the turn of a wheel floods the set with water, and Gabriel Chan’s multi hued lights cast a shimmer over the entire stage. In a full metamorphosis, Athenia has become almost unrecognizable. More impressive still are the actual fairies, donning neon face paint and a shock of colour in their costumes made of clashing materials. Led by Oberon (Ghafir Akbar again, now with a cotton-candy fauxhawk), it’s easy to mistake them as modern day ravers, a spectacle to behold and their infectious energy spreads across the park.

There is a wild delight to watching the entire phalanx of these otherworldly creatures appearing from every nook and cranny hidden onstage, stomping about the water in bright wellingtons, while leaping and crawling all over the set. Paired with Mervin Wong’s hyperpop, bass-heavy background music, and Tan Rui Shan’s mass choreography (at one point, they even perform a cohesive, hypnotic Vogue-inspired sequence), it feels as if their dancing becomes a contemporary, radical form of magic, ritualistic yet also incredibly fun, and remain the most visually stunning parts of the show every time they appear, ready to dance for the audience, or mischievously playing tricks on each other. 

With the fairies awakened, A Midsummer Night’s Dream dives into the gleeful chaos it excels in, with sly Titania (Julie Wee again, in her more crafty and wily fairy alter-ego) and Puck (Krish Natarajan) more than eager to cause some mischief. As Puck, Krish fully embraces the role’s gleeful anarchy, and finds himself almost constantly giggling or laughing away, taking exaggerated tiptoed steps or falling dramatically down impossible heights. Krish exudes a wild, unadulterated sense of danger and havoc, and we simultaneously fear Puck’s power while revelling in his guilty pleasure.

The resulting commotion from the fairies’ meddling is, in essence, Shakespeare done right. When the four Athenian lovers bicker among themselves, their insults evolve quickly into fisticuffs and catfights, with comically oversized weapons and dirty tactics used to gain the upper hand. Gordon Choy’s fight choreography sees them getting drenched in puddles, dramatically splashing about as they fall over and get between each other, engaged in a chase around the entire set while clothes come undone or ripped open.

But it is once again the fairies that steal the show, with Oberon falling in love with a transformed Bottom. The resulting sequences as the fairies and Bottom celebrate are riotous, ecstatic affairs where they play with umbrellas and vacuums, or even bring out the water guns. Above all though, Jenkins does something special in his role as Bottom. When he finds himself loved by the fairies, far more than his fellow tradesmen, there is an innocent joy to his smile, something pure that finds its way to the surface while he dances with the fey. Each time he speaks, it is as if it is an acknowledgement of his importance and power in the fairy kingdom, lost in a beautiful dream that sees him glowing with jubilation.

By the time it reaches the finale, the audience is now fully invested in the madness of this world, and something curious seems to happen. We have allowed ourselves to enter this realm, and for these fairies’ magic to enter our minds. And just like us, Theseus too seems to have softened his approach, accepting the young lovers for their decisions, as if falling under the spell of the fairies to lighten up and laugh. As the Mechanicals perform their outrageously guerrilla production of Pyramus and Thisbe for the royals, we scream, we cheer, and we are on the edge of our seats to see their next move. From a daring audience volunteer, to the impossibly triumphant return of Bottom, to the overblown death scenes, A Midsummer Night’s Dream manages to top itself over and over.

If it really was all a dream, then it was a lucid one. At no point does the play ever feel confusing, each segment and scene crystal clear in its presentation, and director Guy Unsworth has surpassed expectations when it comes to crafting an accessible, blockbuster edition of Shakespeare in the Park. Every element in its place, SRT makes magic happen under the moonlight with this visually stunning, thoroughly engaging production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that entertains, educates, and leaves you floored. Once again, SRT has made a seemingly impossible production into a reality, and if it’s one show that will convince you literature opens doors to entire worlds, it’s this.

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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