While I had majored in Literature during my Junior College (High School) days, the text I read for my syllabus didn’t expose me much to Shakespeare. In fact, the only text I had read through and through was King Lear, with only excerpts from other masterpieces such as Hamlet, Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While Romeo and Juliet have now been typecast in the contemporary English language as archetypal young lovers, I had not read once the tragedy that told the tale of a sweet forbidden love. If there was any association at all with me and the brilliant text that the bard had written over four centuries ago, it would be that I had visited Verona once before, touring Juliet’s House, the site where the famous balcony scene was filmed for Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film adaptation of the tragedy starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in the leading roles.
With news that this could be the last Shakespeare In The Park event for many years to come, I thought it will be worth taking some time out from my hectic schedule to go catch the play. Shakespeare In The Park is a term used for outdoor festivals featuring productions from none other than the bard himself. Before this year’s staging of Romeo & Juliet, this event had been presented in Singapore 8 times prior by the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT), with Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice among its mainstage repertoire. The event is normally marketed with a carnival-like atmosphere, where one can bring in your own picnic basket and enjoy Shakespeare under the moonlight with your family, friends and loved ones.
I picked up my lovely date at City Hall before making the short walk over to Fort Canning Park. Despite having arrived more than an hour before the opening, there was a long queue already at the park’s entrance waiting to enter the event premises. I was also worried about the dark clouds and faint whispers of thunder heard in the background as the show would be cancelled in the event of adverse weather. My worries were however unfounded as the skies soon cleared and the play commenced on time as members of the audience cosied up and settled down with their picnic essentials.
With its contemporary take on the famous classical text, the first acts of the play may come off as confusing for the audience. Instead of expecting the cast to be in Elizabethan outfits, the cast are dressed instead in modern clothing such as hoodies, sweatshirts and tailored western suits. Modern modes of transport such as motorbikes are featured, while swordfights were replaced with tussles that involved batons, guns and kickboxing. While it is good that art moves along with the times, such modifications seek to cause more confusion than order. This is especially so when most of the dialogue used were kept true to the original text.
While the production preserved the compelling plot and powerful script, me and my date can’t stop feeling that the cast were suffering from split personality or some form of identity disorder. The language used did not quite gel with the stage setting and avant-garde backdrop. Nonetheless, the cast did a pretty decent job at portraying their respective characters. The two stars of the show are no other than Thomas Pang and Cheryl Tan, both who are taking on a major production of Shakespeare for the very first time. Pang manages to depict the rash, impulsive, and at times foolish (but romantic) Romeo that Shakespeare had envisioned him to be, while Tan manages to personify the subtle wantonness that a young and hormone-raging Juliet possesses. Daniel Jenkins, as one of the most experienced member of the cast, also put in a credible shift as Friar Laurence, his self-flagellation scene perhaps being one of the darkest and outstanding moments of the play.
Despite my misgivings over the modern direction of the play, I must however admit that the set design is one of my favourite among the various stage performances I’ve seen thus far. The multiple sets of stairs, along with various secret entrances and light effects, makes this set a truly unique and memorable one that will etch in the minds of audiences for time to come. That said, I did experience somewhat of an internal struggle during Act II, Scene II, as they played out the now famous balcony scene without the set having any form of semblance of an actual balcony. As much as I liked this new set design, some things classic just cannot be changed.
Overall, SRT’s 2016’s edition of Shakespeare In The Park manages to tell the tragic story of Romeo and Juliet, two star-crossed lovers embroiled in a tale of sweet forbidden love, in what I would label as a modern dystopian Verona. For a truly Shakespearean experience, I would suggest catching a performance at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, or at the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-Upon-Avon – Shakespeare’s birthplace in the English Midlands. But if you are looking for an extravagant evening to impress your significant other, why not come to Fort Canning and spread your picnic blanket under the stars and relish in one of the greatest love stories ever told? Canapés, a bottle of red and Shakespeare for company would no doubt be a memorable and romantic evening for all lovebirds out there. Do catch it before Shakespeare In The Park’s final curtain call.