Sandaime Richard

by Hideki Noda
Singapore International Festival of Arts 2016: Potentialities
Victoria Theatre, Singapore

The SIFA is never complete without a showstopper helmed by festival director Ong Keng Sen. And one really should be used to his style by now. Lear Dreaming was an aesthetically intoxicating distillation of Shakespeare's great tragedy that saw a multi-lingual fusion between eastern and western performance styles. Facing Goya, an English opera about ethics and science, involved a resolutely multi-racial cast and a kaleidoscope of technical effects. And last year's critically acclaimed The Adventures of Border Crossers was a mammoth durational performance about migrant workers that revelled in its defiant babel of languages, costumes and overlapping narratives.

The common theme amongst these productions is a reworking and recontextualising of classics and the adoption of a plurality of voices. This is all well and good in theory but it also makes for a challenging experience that has the potential to alienate viewers.

Photo credit: Jun Ishikawa

Sandaime Richard is a crafty, inter-textual spin on Shakespeare's Richard III by Japanese playwright Hideki Noda. Richard, quintessential villain and usurper of the English throne, is cast here as Richard Sandaime (Kazutaro Nakamura), grand master of an ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) clan. Shakespeare (Doji Shigeyama) is placed on trial for falsifying history in his play and using the character of Richard as a means to exact revenge on his own crippled brother. The prosecution is led by an effervescent Maachan of Venice (Janice Koh), who has his own bone to pick: he has to contend with being the despised Shylock of Shakespeare's creation.

All this is stimulating enough but Ong throws yet more pastiche into the mix: we have performers speaking different languages (English, Japanese and Indonesian), playing multiple roles and adopting varying performative styles - ranging from the gender-bending traditions of kabuki to the evocative shadow play of wayang kulit. Richard is played by Kazutaro Nakamura, a performer who specialises in female kabuki performances and gives the character a bashful, effete spin. Maachan is played by a woman.

Multi-lingualism has been a cornerstone of Ong's work but one wonders to what extent part of the play's power has been lost. Reading the English surtitles alone is unable to allow one to appreciate the richness of Noda's wordplay. Indeed, it's difficult to be drawn into a conversation where we have a character speaking one language and getting a reply in a completely different one. While this may suggest a certain universality of experience, the babel of languages tends to frustrate.

Photo credit: Jun Ishikawa

The other aspect is the artificiality of the whole enterprise. This was something I distinctly felt in Lear Dreaming, which seemed to be comprised of utterly disparate elements cobbled together to form a narrative. Once again, we are presented with a series of visual spectacles that do not always cohere. Wayang kulit segments by puppeteer and vocalist I Kadek Budi Setiawan are beautifully executed in their own right but seem oddly juxtaposed against the blazing action: an extended finale sequence proves anticlimactic. Segments of stand-up comedy interspersed with the action are rather superfluous and tend to break up the pace.

There are however some beautiful technical displays. Lighting is used to electric effect by  Scott Zielinkski, bathing the stage in arresting palettes of colour. At times, the actors virtually blend in with the background while, at others, they stand out in stark, psychedelic contrast. The costumes by Mitsushi Yanaihara  are also a success, marrying tradition and modernity with finesse.

Sandaime Richard is ultimately a production that fuses play, parable and performance art with irreverent glee. One cannot deny its magnetic effect but in Ong's quest to explore multiplicities,  a leaner, cleaner approach may well have been the means to unlock the true potentiality of the text.  

The Crystalwords score: 2.5/5


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