Oh boy, this review is late. It’s been more than a week since I watchedSandaime Richard, and I’m only posting about it now…
But before we get into a proper review, I wanna dig into Ong Keng Sen’s directorial past a little. Specifically, the fact that he’s explored the meeting of Shakespeare and traditional/contemporary Asian arts several times before.
It started with Lear (1997). I didn’t know it at the time, but that really was KS coming into his own, trying to answer Peter Brook’s orientalist visions of The Mahabharata by reinventing a Western myth using an Asian performance medium.
He’d worked with traditional Asian artists before in various editions of his intense performance workshop camp, the Flying Circus Project. Now he was assembling them all on stage together—noh Lear, Beijing opera Regan, khon Cordelia, rapper Fool—to create an epic new myth of contemporary Asia.
Much of the funding and creative input for this work came from Japan—the playwright was the late Rio Kishida and there was actually minor controversy about the incongruity of a Japanese man playing the father of a Chinese daughter. Also, there was classic gender-flipping, with both Goneral and Cordelia played by men.
Regan and attendants in Lear (1999 performance)
But the worldview that resulted in all of them being thrown on stage together was intensely Singaporean. KS’s desire to reinvent Shakespeare clearly grew out of over-exposure to the Swan of Avon through our British colonial school system. And KS writes that he’s used to a diversity of languages and traditions around him. That’s still not typical of many Asian societies. (Another Singaporean artist had actually staged a pan-Asian revue a few years before: Dick Lee’s more folksy Fantasia .)
Lear was followed shortly by Desdemona (2000), which was much more loosely inspired by Shakespeare: instead of a classical Othello, we had a portrait of a king who murders his wife, and a modern-day Asian woman negotiating weight loss and her career and so on. Traditional Asian art forms were involved: we had a kudiyattum Othello and Burmese puppeteers and kagok music in the background. But the focus was more on contemporary video and installation artists.
Othello in Desdemona (2000)
I remember there were plans to do a Julius Caesar as well, officially completing a trilogy. But that never transpired. He did organise a meeting of kunqu and Shakespearean music in awaking (2008), but that was orchestral, not dramatic.
Still, it was clear that he’d established a certain competency and vocabulary for working with Asian artists of diverse traditions, which he exhibited in works like The Continuum; The Silver River; The Global Soul; Sandakan Threnody; like the cat sitting on the edge of the ocean of milk, hoping to lap it all up; GEISHA; Diaspora and The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers.
In other words, with Lear, KS had created a signature style of sorts. He even felt the need to remind a new generation of audiences of its significance through Lear Dreaming (2012), a more minimalistic and multimedia-heavy reprise of the original work.
Now, with Sandaime Richard, he’s revisiting Shakespeare and Asian traditional/contemporary performance in a big way. And that’s hella interesting, not only because of the similarities, but because of the differences. In other words, we get to see how KS has changed in the last 20 years—for better or for worse.
So how was the show?
Well, let’s get this out of the way first: Sandaime Richard isn’t the easiest show to watch.
Why? Well, a lot of the reasons can be traced by to the fact that it isn’t a newly written script. It dates back to 1990, and it represents an early, largely forgotten stage of Japanese playwright Hideki Noda’s career. And even though that script’s been chopped up significantly, the work we’ve got is still heavily dependent on text and plot.
With a work like Lear, it was easy to sit back and just go ooh and aah at the spectacle of all these traditional performers showing off the best of their craft. In Sandaime Richard, we’re constantly watching the surtitles, trying to follow dialogues and exchanges and plot lines.
Dialogue, by the way, is a huge element in the production. It’s interesting to realise that though characters in Lear, Desdemona and The Global Soul spoke to each other in different languages, their exchanges tended to consist of big chunks of monologues, each delivered in their own operatic or naturalistic style. Those works were mosaics, where the grand artistes of each tradition remained discrete. Here, the artists chatter away with each other as naturally as if they’re in a production of Chekhov.
This is a little tiring to follow for the 2 hour 20 minute duration of a show. And it’s not actually groundbreaking: on the Singaporean stage, casual cross-linguistic dialogues are now the norm in productions by The Necessary Stage and Cake Theatre.
But it is still freaking cool here. Just check out the opening, where the first voice to emerge isn’t in Japanese or English, but in Balinese. I Kadek Budi Setiawan, the wayang kulit puppeteer, calls out to Richard III, played by kabuki star Kazutaro Nakamura: he’s playing a loyal retainer who vows that he won’t abandon the king on the battlefield—only to have his trust betrayed when Richard chops off his leg to keep him in place.
Kadek plays everyone on the battlefield, friend and foe, and Kazu has to battle or command each one, sometimes ducking behind screens for shadow combat, sometimes facing him head on. Two theatrical styles from two different island civilisations meet as equals, and they play—not in a tentative experimental way, as we see in so many forays into interculturalism, but naturally, energetically, both desperate and alive.
Yet as Sandaime Richard proceeds, and one gets used to the novelty of the clashing aesthetics, it does become pretty exhausting. This is mostly due to plot. It’s a twisted affair, alright. Let’s break it down:
1) Upon Richard III’s death, he’s summoned by Truth (Junko Emoto) and the lawyer Maachan (Janice Koh) into a courtroom where his legacy of war crimes is judged.
2) His prosecutor is none other than Shakespeare (kyogen star Doji Shigeyama). But Maachan claims that Shakespeare is deliberately misrepresenting Richard III to avenge himself against his younger brother Richard, who was in fact the third son of the family (this is true if you don’t count those who died as kids) and also a cripple (not documented).
3) Maachan then reveals that he’s actually Shylock from The Merchant of Venice, out for revenge against his creator and maligner—hell, he might even summon Lady Macbeth along for the ride. Oh, and he’s also lending money to Shakespeare’s inveterate gambler of a father (Seika Kuze), who’s driven the family ruin, so Shakespeare has to guarantee his payment with a pound of his own flesh.
4) In order to save his reputation, Shakespeare creates a new, easier-to-relate-to, Japanified version of Richard III: Sandaime Richard, retelling the War of the Roses as a clash between rival ikebana clans. This tale takes up the bulk of the play, with Richard re-enacting his supposed crimes of locking people up in the Tower and executing them—but Maachan’s inserted himself as his accomplice, and plays the more obviously blameworthy instigator of all his sins (cf. Lady Macbeth again) so as to make his defendant appear more innocent.
5) In the meantime, Shakespeare’s mother (Jajang C. Noer) panics and goes into hiding. (She’s also playing Richard’s main antagonist, Iemoto Fujin, an Elizabeth Woodville analogue in the Sandaime Richard play-within-a-play, just to make things complicated.) She finds refuge in the thirteenth seat of the jury, and thus ends up being able to save her son when the jury is hung…
6) So Richard’s sentenced to be executed—and since Shakespeare’s father betted against his son and can’t pay Maachan/Shylock back, Shakespeare’s going to have to lose his pound of flesh. To avoid spilling blood, he’ll have to stand on his head and have his foot cut off.
7) The finale of the two men freaking out before their punishments, spouting all their earlier lines from the play, is accompanied by a not obviously related wayang kulit battle by Kadek.
This takes some time. As Kazu noted, people take a long time to die in kabuki.
So there’s enough layers of intertextuality going on here to befuddle a matryoshka doll. And if you think it’s difficult to figure out what’s going on (I may have got several details wrong), it’s even harder to figure out why it’s all there. I mean, if all this complexity has survived twenty-two years and a radical re-chopping of the script under Keng Sen’s direction, then it all must mean something, no?
KS spoke about how the play is about power, standing up to tyranny, etc—but there’s no single tyrant involved, nor any powerless victims of oppression. The only liberation being discussed is that of Shakespeare trying to get out from under the yoke of his family. Agitprop theatre, this isn’t.
Plus there’s the additional levels of gender and ethno-cultural drag. Not only do we have a 20th century Japanese playwright’s take on a 16th century English play; we’ve got Singaporean women playing Venetian Jewish men and Balinese men playing servant girls.
And all to what end? This isn’t like Lear or The Global Soul where we’re trying to create a new international epic myth from an Asian perspective. Unlike those works, Sandaime Richard has a core to it that is thoroughly Japanese and specifically modern.
It looks great, but what does it all mean?
It’s this question that’s been bugging me all week. And I feel like I’ve come to a little breakthrough. It happened while I was surfing my old posts, specificallymy review of last year’s SIFA contribution by KS: The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers.
In that essay, I suggested that KS was interrogating the nation-state narrative of Singapore by presenting a multiplicity of individual narratives. Something similar might be going on here.
But instead of co-existing in happy Singaporean harmony, the narratives of Sandaime Richard compete with one another. It begins with a simple dichotomy of Shakespeare’s Richard III vs. a more sympathetic assessment of the historical Richard III—both of which are eclipsed by a fictional Japanese version of Richard, created and manipulated for various agendas.
Shakespeare’s status as the Immortal Bard is challenged by a conspiracy theory reading of his plays, and fictionalized into a nowhere setting that is both modern Japan and Renaissance England.
And within the Sandaime Richard-in-a-Sandaime Richard, we see individual power plays taking place, with different dynasties claiming the right to power—in particular, the concubine-turned-head of the household, Iemoto Fujin, accused of being a low-caste interloper, and played by a Sumatran dialect-speaking Jajang C. Noer in the midst of a crowd of Japanese.
And though we’re supposed to be coming to an impartial judgment in a courtroom, the judge is played by Takarazuka star Seika Kuze, who jitterbugs and croons her way onto stage each time she appears, and triples as Shakespeare’s deadbeat dad and two doomed ikebana heirs.
Oh yeah, and SPOILER ALERT: Truth (who’s a woman in drag anyway) gets killed in the play. SPOILERS END, sort of.
So these are violently unstable and unreliable narratives. Tales told by a dalang, full of sound and fury, signifying… who knows? Deferment after deferment of meaning.
And it’s easy to see how all this applies to Japan, a country whose official history has been contested by its indigenous people and by victims of its imperialism in World War Two.
And though Japan is an island civilisation with a fairly monolithic culture, that’s challenged by its juxtaposition with another island civilisation, less unified and with even more contested histories: that of Indonesia, with artists speaking Indonesian, Javanese, Balinese and in the case of Janice Koh, English.
(Yes, I just claimed Singapore was part of Indonesia. Why not? According to some historical and geographical perspectives we are. If we’re gonna disrupt master narratives, we might as well go all the way.)
And of course, part of this presentation of multiple narratives involves KS’s very choice of script: not a classic, but an undervalued work by a Japanese genius of the stage. Hence, Sandaime Richard.
So that’s what I think may have been going on in this play. Go on, challenge my narrative if you like. That’s what the comments section is for, after all.
Some final thoughts:
1) I haven’t mentioned Miki Takii yet, who plays both the poor seduced widow Lady Anne in the original Richard III and Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway. I loved how she managed to be pixyish and scheming and evil and adorable.
2) There’s a bit during a murder scene where Kazu and Doji start speaking in absurdly low and slow tones and I suddenly realised ooh ooh they’re imitating noh! Which speaks to a history of intertextuality even within traditional Asian performing arts: how kabuki and kyogen both contain the capacity to create parodies of other art forms.
3) A young poet friend of mine (not sure if she wants to be named) pointed out during the intermission that the Indonesian actors consistently play characters from lower class backgrounds: servants and concubines and foot soldiers. And there are non-racist reasons for this—Kadek, for instance, said that many of his roles were added later, when his dance skills were recognised in addition to his puppetry, so of course they gave him multiple smaller roles rather than getting him to play Shakespeare. But it’s still a matter of some discomfort.
4) Speaking of the oppressed, what about the disabled? The way being “crippled” was being used as shorthand for being weak or evil was hashtag #problematic. If this kind of ableism persists in KS’s work, I’m gonna call up Paralympic champions Yip Pin Xiu and Theresa Goh to rough him up a little.
5) And there are so many many other things I could say about Sandaime Richard—the insane costumes and makeup (Shakespeare has glow in the dark lipstick! And Janice gets the most basic costume because Singaporeans don’t have a culture!) and the choreography and music and lighting and multimedia. But at the end of the day, I do think KS could afford to tone and trim it down a little. Sometimes all these trimmings disrupt the simple beauty of a moment, and yes, I do think this show is kinda too goddamn long.
And so is this review. Good night everybody!