Published on August 8, 2007
After critically acclaimed and sold out runs on British shores, in Stratford-Upon-Avon and Newcastle, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) commenced its world tour of William Shakespeare's "King Lear", performed in repertoire with Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull" with exactly the same cast, in - surprise, surprise - Singapore.
Usually, it's the other way around. A big play or musical will perform in either the West End or on Broadway for a few years before embarking on a global journey, and always with a different cast. Hence, kudos to local promoters Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) and Esplanade - theatres on the Bay whose unique vision and tireless effort made the island state the only Asian stop.
"Lear" tickets were sold out weeks in advance at prices ranging from S$30 to S$400 (Bt675 to Bt9,000), drawing a wide range of spectators, including high school students. Anticipation was high, banners and posters were all over the city, and I couldn't find a single edition of "King Lear" in local bookstores.
Of course, many members of the audience came to see Sir Ian McKellen ("The Lord of the Ring's" Gandalph the Grey and "X-Men's" Magneto) portraying one of the most demanding roles in classical theatre. As a bonus they had an opportunity to witness a world-class ensemble work under the direction of Sir Trevor Nunn.
As soon as the stage lights went out at the end, the audience rose to give the whole company a standing ovation for one of the most memorable nights they had ever experienced.
Certain small details are crucial in live events such as theatre, especially when it comes to matters of sight and sound. The 1,800-seat Esplanade Theatre, despite being known for world-class acoustics, had never hosted a dramatic production without the help of microphones before. However, the vocal prowess of the RSC's actors has been highly praised - a voice coach travels with the company and voice workshops are held on a regular basis.
And so, they decided against using microphones, but instead took out the first six rows of seats and built a large platform extending the stage into the audience. Since the playhouse is horse shoe-shaped, the audience enveloped the stage on three sides, imitating the stage arrangements of Shakespeare's age.
As a result, not only was the action closer and the voices clearer - rarely lost in the wings behind the proscenium arch - but there were also two additional entrances and exits for the actors to make the scene transitions quicker and smoother.
In the role of a lifetime, 68-year-old McKellen proved why he's a legend. Through the course of the action, his transition from regal and dominant absolute monarch to a man completely dispossessed, drifting on the edge of insanity, was always credible. His interactions with other players were central to the audience's understanding and appreciation of the play's messages.
The reconciliation between estranged father and daughter Lear and Cordelia, the latter played by the mesmerising Romola Garai, was tender and touching, while the final scene in which he carried her dead body was poignant and heart rending.
Other stars of the evening included William Guant, who was subtle yet powerful as the Earl of Gloucester; Ben Mayjes, whose transformation from Edmund into "Mad Tom" caught the imagination; and Jonathan Hyde, whose supporting role with the Earl of Kent was more than mere prop.
As the Fool, Sylvester McCoy pulled out his verbal and physical comedic tricks, most of which broke through language and culture barriers, drawing ripples of laughter.
Although the design was rather conventional, it wasn't disappointing, especially when we were given such stellar performances. The costumes illustrated not only the characters' social statuses and personality but also their state of mind, while the main set of the throne hall was progressively stripped down, reflecting the gradual loss of Lear's power. There were slight distractions early on as we got to watch stage crews carry the set props on to the stage during scene changes.
The RSC's world tour of "King Lear" and "The Seagull" continues on to Wellington and Auckland this month, New York in September, Minneapolis and LA in October, before opening at the New London Theatre in London's West End in November. For more information, visit www.rsc.org.uk.
More soon-to-be-confirmed good news: SRT is planning to bring their highly lauded musical drama "Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress" to Tokyo and also Bangkok next year. This is one of the best musicals this reporter has seen in Southeast Asia. More details at www.srt.com.sg.
Later this month, music fans will gather at Fort Canning Park for a unique outdoor music event -
"WOMAD Singapore 2007" - where a performance by Youssou N'Dour will be one of the highlights. For the complete line-up, check out www.womadsingapore.com.
The writer can be contacted at Pawit.M@chula.ac.th