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Theatre Review (Singapore): Twelfth Night by Singapore Repertory Theatre

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This year, Singapore Repertory Theatre’s (SRT) annual offering under its Shakespeare in the Park series was Twelfth Night, which ran from 25th April to 20th May at the Fort Canning Park.

Twelfth Night is a comedy of mistaken identity, as the story starts with Viola (Rebecca Spykerman) losing her twin brother in a storm that wrecks the ship they both are on. Stranded on Illyria, Viola takes on the identity of a man, calls herself Cesario, and enters the services of Duke Orsino (Shane Mardjuki), who’s meanwhile in love with Olivia (Seong Hui Xuan). Olivia in return falls for Cesario, not knowing it’s Viola in disguise.

In a sub-plot, Malvolio (Daniel Jenkins), Olivia’s arrogant steward, gets hoaxed by Sir Toby (Neil McCaul), Sir Andrew (Andy Tear), and Maria (Vicky Williamson), and is egged on at various times by Fabian (Tan Shou Chen) and Feste (Adrian Pang) in an attempt to make Malvolio think Olivia is in love with him instead.

As one of Shakespeare’s lighter comedies, Twelfth Night was the perfect choice for this outdoor night performance, as the play was easy enough even for the uninitiated to comprehend, and yet had a myriad of connotations and symbolism for the literature buffs to enjoy as well.

The production was superbly directed by Bruce Guthrie (Associate Director for Richard III with Kevin Spacey in 2011). Most of the actors excelled in delivering their Ol’ English lines in such a manner as to capture the pathos of Shakespeare’s words. Also, Guthrie interjected such layers into the role of Feste that it made this production of Twelfth Night very accessible, as the audience immediately identified with the comedic Feste’s antics scattered throughout the play.

The story was set in the 1930s. Robin Don’s mesmerizing island set consisted of a raked stage, a yacht, a beach bar, sand, and water, including a neoclassical manor complete with iron gates and a water feature. Andrzej Goulding’s projection of the sea as a backdrop but appearing as if it was upstage was very convincing and worked with the rest of the set to create an illusion that we were actually at a beach town overlooking its residents. As the sun began to set across Fort Canning Park, and dusk set in, even the random swooping birds assimilated with the set and contributed to this wondrous illusion. And at the end of the play, Goulding even made a moon appear as the couples danced in the moonlight.

However, a big disappointment came from the sound system, which was so bad that even with the actors who possessed booming voices, the sound came across muffled through the speakers. Either the speakers were too far away or there weren’t enough of them, and it was strange that many bloggers/reviewers had complained about this early on in the month-long run and yet even in the last week, nobody had bothered to check on the sound. What is a play when you can’t hear the dialogue properly?

The bad sound quality was coupled with the presence of chatty youngsters who didn’t seem to have any sense of theatre etiquette and mistook Shakespeare in the Park to be Recess Time at school. Not only were these teenagers talking through the play, they clearly were paying as much attention to it as they did to English class. A case in point: When Olivia planted a passionate kiss on Sebastian’s lips, these kids thought she had kissed Viola (Sebastian and Viola were clad in the same outfit), and chatter arose expounding on the rating of this play and why a kiss between two ladies were allowed to linger for so long in a PG rated show!

Luckily for us, most of the actors were ably trained to bypass such technical (and audience) disruptions and managed to entice us with their nuanced portrayals. The standout performers were Adrian Pang who played Feste, and Seong Hui Xuan who played Olivia, as well as the threesome of baddies, Vicky Williamson, Andy Tear, and Neil McCaul who played Maria, Sir Andrew, and Sir Toby respectively. Ironically, aside from Seong, the others played supporting roles, which would’ve otherwise gone unnoticed had it not been for their ability to instill subtle layering and infuse nuances into their delivery of the lines as well as into their facial expressions and bodily gestures. Seong especially stood out because she’s a newcomer in the world of acting, only having acted in the last couple of years, but her performance rivaled those who had years of experience on her as she delivered with aplomb and a large measure of assuredness.

Pang, a veteran of both stage and television, proved once again that he really is a theatre-actor. Whilst his overdone pout and over-dramatic acting don’t quite fit on television, his acting style is a perfect fit for theatre and Pang certainly knows how to handle a live audience. As Feste, Pang had the audience in his hands, as he flirted with them, demanded more cheering, and then sang for them intermittently too (who knew Pang could sing?!). The audience ate him up, and he looked like he was having a ball of a time. Also, Pang seemed the most comfortable cast member with the Elizabethan dialogue and delivered his lines with such ease and naturalness that you’d think he wakes up every morning speaking Shakespeare!

Unfortunately, being surrounded by all these capable actors made Rebecca Spykerman’s lackluster performance all the more obvious. The main problem was that as Viola, she needed to be the anchor for the whole play, but she lacked the stage presence to do so, because she was sorely missing one thing: projection. Spykerman, also a newcomer in the acting scene, didn’t have the required projection of voice or projection of body language, expressions, and gestures that theatre calls for. She was very restrained and laidback in both areas. Also, in theatre, where there’s a very fine line between overacting and theatrical acting, whenever Spykerman tried to insert some physicality into her portrayal, it came across as overtly dramatic, contrived, and hokey.

While we can excuse a lot of these shortcomings seeing that this is Spykerman’s first leading role, and perhaps the new thespian just needs time to find her own presence on stage, we cannot deny that she was let down terribly by the ineffective sound system which mangled her voice to such a degree that the audience only caught every third word she was saying, and at times whole stretches of what she was saying went undecipherable. In such an important ingenue role, with limited voice projection herself, Spykerman should’ve been supported with sufficient speakers, instead of being subjected, along with us, to poor sound quality. Her performance could’ve easily been elevated with better sound.

Whilst it was a nice touch to see Feste’s songs turned into modern versions with the help of composer-arranger Ruth Ling, just as with Spykerman’s speech, we couldn’t make out any of the lyrics at all. The melodies sounded great but it was just a pity we didn’t know what Feste was singing about!

However, despite these drawbacks, praise has to be given to the Singapore Repertory Theatre itself, for the entire concept of Shakespeare in the Park and its choice of presenting us with this dreamy version of Twelfth Night this year, which left you by the end of the evening having the urge to converse in Elizabethan poetry yourself.

In Singapore’s version of a spring heat wave, where the night was sweltering and the air was completely still, and audience was packed like sardines into the patch of grass in front of the staging area, something magical happened as Twelfth Night enthralled through the evening. All of a sudden, despite the dizzying breathlessness of the dense hot night air, you just stopped caring about the torturous humidity, and stopped worrying about the chatter – in fact, when Olivia kissed her suitor heatedly again, another talkative student pronouncedly declared, “Oh that‘s nothing, I see that every day at school,” and admit I must that a chuckle did form in my throat. And even as the projector failed, and the sea kept appearing and disappearing before my eyes, it all contributed to the laughter and fun this Twelfth Night did hold. For by starry end, SRT, cast, crew, ambiance, and even chatty young’uns created a maddening dream that enticed, truth be told. 

So as I leave you to ponder my words on what Twelfth Night brought
Do let me, in my state of delirium, quip an apt line from that I watched:

What relish is in this? how runs the stream?
Or I am mad, or else this is a dream:
Let fancy still my sense in Lethe steep;
If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep!

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.
  • charlotte

    Thanks for great review – how can I connect withyou directly to invite you to our upcoming plays? [personal contact info deleted by comments editor]

  • Sharmila

    Hello Charlotte, may I know from which playhouse or theatre company you are from? Are you from SRT itself? Thanks.