[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

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

Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

The final graduation production for the 2022 cohort of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. True to the ethos of the institute, this production features various performance traditions. I interviewed director Aarne Neeme to find out more about the show.

Why did you choose A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the production for the students to work on?

The choice of the graduation play is a group decision by the teaching staff — relating largely to the student needs and composition. This year we had a relatively large number of talented students, including strong women, which A Midsummer Night’s Dream gave opportunities for, together with the challenges of a Shakespearean play. While I have directed well over a dozen of his creations, this is my first encounter with the Dream, and I am relishing it!

Why did you decide to weave in Beijing opera, Kutiyattam, and Wayang Wong, performing traditions in which students have received some training in, into the show? How did you decide on which characters in the play would take a particular tradition?

One of the aims of ITI is to draw from the rich resources of both traditional Eastern and Western forms. Given the four layers of the play (the Spirit world, Athenian Court, Mechanicals and the “Performance”), it seemed an ideal opportunity to utilise elements of the training to delineate them. While there is no attempt to fully replicate any of the forms, we have simply used aspects to illuminate the differing worlds of the play.

India was the main source of most theatre in Asia, and with its spiritual beliefs, seemed to be the most appropriate for the world of Oberon and Titania. While the formality and morality of Chinese Opera befitted the Athenian aristocracy. This left the largely movement based style of Wayang Wong to the working men, with a touch of Elizabethan theatre for the play-within-the-play.

Courtesy of Intercultural Theatre Institute

What are some of the difficulties in working on the show especially in negotiating across four theatrical traditions?

The greatest challenge is the poetic Elizabeth language (even for native-born English speakers!). Sir Peter Hall puts it as: “The first question that the actor must ask about a Shakespearean speech is not who he is playing or what the character wants, first he must ask WHAT the character says and HOW he says it. The reverse of modern practice.” The delivery requires an understanding of sound and placement to enrich meaning. There was no confusion of traditions in specific characters, as they each belonged to separate forms.

Were there any interesting discoveries in the rehearsal process?

I was struck by the universal similarities of theatre presentation — story-telling through action with the imaginative power of poetry, abetted by music and dance, all on a bare stage lit by the audiences’ imagination. Also our shared human vagaries of being in love confused by infatuation, dream and fantasy, with society’s attempts to control it through reason, rules and the order of marriage. The play presents eight variations of love’s entanglements, leading finally to three marriages, a reconciliation, a meaningless encounter and the ultimate heroic foolishness of dying for love.


Catch It!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs from 3-5 November 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.

[Flash Theatre Review] Blood & Rose Ensemble — Much Ado About Very Little

Blood & Rose Ensemble
Shakespeare’s Wild Sisters Group
25 February 2018
Esplanade Theatre Studio
23–25 February 2018
Part of Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts 2018

To illustrate the contingency of history, this production is shot through with meta-theatricality.

Several art forms [Foley sound effects, Shuang Huang (双簧), movements from Chinese opera, pop music, etc.] are employed to continuously highlight the performativity of the piece as well as the history of War of the Roses.

While it is generally intriguing and entertaining, the novelty of it fades after a while. Yes, in some senses, history and life as a whole is contingent—so what? It’s much ado about very little.

Furthermore, the lightness of touch erases the humanity of the characters, which what makes Shakespeare’s Henry VI part 3 and Richard III interesting.

You don’t need two hours to tell us that out lives are contingent and—in the grand scheme of things—our desires, struggles, and strife are petty.