by William Shakespeare
Full Show Lane Studio
Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts 2016
Esplanade Studio Theatre

This Mandarin production of one of the Bard's most famous tragedies, directed by rising star Huang Ying of China's Full Show Lane Studio and presented as part of the Esplanade's Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts, is sharp, slick and surprisingly funny. Some of the side characters have been omitted or combined - Duncan's younger son Donalbain has disappeared and the three Weird Sisters have been rolled into one - but the production remains largely faithful to the text. It's a fresh, breezy rendition that clips along without preamble though one downside is that the richly poetic language is somewhat cast aside in favour of simpler, unadorned prose.

Artistic Director Tadashi Suzuki's world-famous Suzuki method of acting informs the production and the young, energetic cast embrace this with great fidelity, making stylized movements that are focused on the body. It's both physical and graceful, adding a lovely Eastern aesthetic to the action. (Nelson Chia of Singapore's Nine Years Theatre is another adherent of the method).

Photo Credit: Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay

One theme that is made absolutely central in this Macbeth is the preoccupation with sleep. The line "Macbeth shall sleep no more" is brought to the very fore:  red eye make-up, of increasing intensity, is seen on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth after killing King Duncan, suggesting their own battle with insomnia. The very fact that other characters are displayed prominently sleeping on stage underlies the internal agony that plagues Macbeth as he treads down his treacherous path. Oversized alarm clocks also remind us that time is a foe, working against the interests of those that seek to further their own ends.

The other noteworthy aspect is the addition of the character Hecate. This is probably controversial to a Western audience as the authorship of the character, ruler of the Weird Sisters and a fairy, is generally not regarded as being canonical. Inko imports a delightful sense of otherness to the character and, in a intriguing twist, it is she who ultimately kills Macbeth instead of Macduff in this version, suggesting that the real danger confronting Macbeth all along is spiritual rather than physical.

Tian Chong cuts a suave figure in the title role and while he doesn't quite catch the tragic fall of the character, there is honesty and empathy in his performance. His "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" monologue, delivered after tussling with the ghosts of both his wife and Banquo, is movingly and sincerely rendered. The sexuality of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (Zeng Zi Yao) is also nicely realized; this is exactly the type of couple who formulate their most dastardly plans between the sheets.

Photo Credit: Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay

Interestingly, many of the characters in Huang's version of the play challenge commonly held perceptions. Banquo (Feng Yang) is a hapless yes man who tries to escape in drag, Macduff (played with delicious insouciance by Patricio Antonio Liang) is a swaggering lad sporting sunglasses and a giant lollipop and perhaps most interestingly, Malcolm (Zhang Tian) is a limping slob who is hardly what one would expect to be the heir to the throne. The sudden revelation that he is not in fact crippled lends a dark streak to the character: has good really been restored or is the cycle of violence doomed to start all over again?

While certain directorial touches are noteworthy - a scene transition featuring a rap montage of English lines of the play set to music and an outrageously funny banquet scene with water fights galore - these do not always work. I, for one, found the refrain from Ben E. King's Stand by Me, which is played at climactic moments in the narrative, to be a little too affected.

Overall, Huang and his team have delivered a production that is both playful and revelatory and breathes new life into a well-worn classic. While it may lack the ability to evoke pathos, it is easy of think of productions that have stuck to the basics and fared far worse. Things are indeed looking bright for this young company and one looks forward to seeing more of them in the future.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5


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