[Theatre Review] A Midsummer Night’s Dream by ITI — Sparse treatment showcases actors’ versatility

Jemima Dunn as a fairy and Daisy Zhao Xiaoqing as Puck / Photo: Bernie Ng

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Intercultural Theatre Institute
3 November 2022
Esplanade Theatre Studio
3–5 November 2022

I have to admit that when I found out that Beijing Opera, Kutiyattam, and Wayang Wong were incorporated to delineate the characters in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, I had strong reservations. 

It could easily derail into an exotic parade. Additionally, with this being the graduation production by the 2022 cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI), it feels like a quick and easy way to showcase what the students learnt, rather than serve the demands of the text.

As the Athenians appear in Chinese opera garb in the first scene, which elicits a short burst of laughter, my heart starts sinking. With the inconsistency in make-up and costume,—none of the actors is in opera make-up, and some of them do not have a head covering—it feels like watching kids playing dress-up.  

Am I to endure 150 minutes of a rude mechanical play within a crude, mechanical performance?

Thankfully, this is not so. 

The rude mechanicals / Photo: Bernie Ng

As the performance goes on, the conceit regarding the various performing traditions becomes clearer. The show does not pretend it is faithful to the art form. Rather, certain aspects are borrowed to accentuate a certain quality of the character or to add to the mise-en-scène. 

To use a very rough analogy, if we liken each performing tradition to a language, rather than it being multilingual, it is more of borrowing a few expressions that capture something which is difficult to translate in one’s native tongue.

In essence, the focus on incorporating various performing traditions in the publicity materials (mea culpa) is over-egging the pudding. 

In that vein, director Aarne Neeme strikes the right balance with the actors when it comes to the fairies and the rude mechanicals. 

Kuttiyatam influences the wide stance, gestures that look like mudras, and the costumes of the fairies. But the production only seems to take the costumes and the gesture of spreading out the cloth hanging from the sides of the costume from Wayang Wong. This results in a cohesive depiction of the fairies and rude mechanicals.

Unfortunately, there is no consensus on how much the actors should borrow from the Beijing opera convention, resulting in them being slightly stifled by the demands of the form and the presence of the water sleeves. 

That said, it should be noted that Ng Yuan Ci (Hermia) is most fluent in the form, as she uses various gestures to portray the besotted or spurned lover to great effect.

Ng Yuan Ci as Hermia and Wong Jin Yi as Helena / Photo: Bernie Ng

But what is truly on display is the versatility of the actors. Of note are Ruthi Lalrinawmi (Titania / Starveling) and Wan Ahmad (Oberon / Snout). Lalrinawmi seems to grow in stature as the graceful Titania while she seems dumpy as Starveling. Being the tallest in the cast, Wan’s height is unmistakable, but the commanding presence of Oberon and the goofy demeanour of Snout is night and day.

While Peh Jun Kai (Bottom) only plays one comedic role, he has full control on the comedic dial throughout the show. He turns it up when he transforms into a donkey, and plays it to the hilt as Thisbe in the play-within-the-play.

Daisy Zhao Xiaoqing’s (Puck / Snug)  interpretation of Puck is interesting. Beyond the usual playfulness, she occasionally flashes a sinister side to the prankster, which is seldom seen in most portrayals. 

Oliver S.K. Wu (Lysander) and Kaleem Zafar (Demetrius) occasionally struggle with the mountain of mawkish text as they try to woo the ladies, but their physical sequences, which are borrowed from Beijing opera, are entertaining to watch when both characters are at odds with each other.

To my mind, Helena is the most irritating character in the play, but my impression of her has been rehabilitated by Wong Jin Yi’s wry approach to the character. Her deadpan expressions and opportune asides to the audience make us sympathetic to her being subjected to the cold-and-hot treatment (no thanks to Puck’s intervention) by the Athenian men.  

Kaleem Zafar as Demetrius and Oliver S.K. Wu as Lysander / Photo: Bernie Ng

As it is a graduation production, it is understandably bare when it comes to the set (curtains of what looks like transparent acrylic strips) and sound (generic Chinese opera or Indian music to signify the entrance of the characters). 

The lack of stage effects may result in the show being rather dry, but it is a testament to the overall success of the show that the audience is engaged throughout the whole performance. 

And what a fitting end for ITI’s class of 2022! Undergoing three years of actor training during a pandemic must seem like a feverish dream for them. 

Other Reviews

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by ITI 2022 Graduating Cohort” by Philippe Pang

剧评:A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Neo Hai Bin, 剧读 thea.preter

Further Reading

[Interview] Director Aarne Neeme on ITI’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Digital Programme of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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