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"The thing about Shakespeare is that his plays are very open. You could take the premise and invert it completely," says Ong.
In Sandaime Richard, directed by Ong Keng Sen, Shakespeare's Richard III has been loosely adapted and transplanted to the competitive world of Japanese ikebana. The international cast includes actor Kazutaro Nakamura (above) as Richard III.

Putting Shakespeare on trial

SIFA festival director Ong Keng Sen returns to familiar ground with his iconoclastic take on the Bard's Richard III.
Sep 2, 2016 5:50 AM

IN the world of Shakespearean characters, few are as reviled as Richard III. "The Crookback King", as he was nicknamed, had a hunchback, a limp and a withered left arm. But they did not stop him from bullying and backstabbing nearly everyone on his way to the throne of England.

Shakespeare depicted him as a man so revolted by his own appearance and prospects for love, he overcompensated by throttling up on power. As the famous lines go: "Since I cannot prove a lover ... I am determined to prove a villain."

In Sandaime Richard, a radical adaptation of Shakespeare's Richard III, Shakespeare is set to come face-to-face with Richard III in a courtroom. Here, Richard is on trial for murder, but his defence lawyer insists that Richard is innocent.

According to the lawyer, the real criminal is Shakespeare, a playwright who has taken such extreme creative licence in his portrayal of Richard, he distorted historical facts to service his sensational drama.

The lawyer, it turns out, is none other than Shylock, the Jewish moneylender from The Merchant of Venice, who is yet another maligned creature in the Shakespearean universe. Because of Shakespeare, Shylock lives in literary infamy for demanding a "pound of flesh" from a man who defaulted on his loan.

This battle of wits between the Bard and his characters is set to play out next week at the Victoria Theatre as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA). Sandaime Richard will be directed by Ong Keng Sen, the avant-garde director who built his international reputation on his iconoclastic interpretations of plays such as King Lear and Hamlet.

Ong, who is also SIFA's festival director, says: "2016 commemorates 400 years since the death of Shakespeare. And I had been asked by people if I wanted to respond to that. So I thought, why not question the whole premise of Shakespeare as a playwright by having him appear as a character in a play."

Sandaime Richard (Sandaime means "the third" in Japanese) was written in 1990 by Japanese playwright Hideki Noda. Noda has transplanted the characters from 15th and 16th century England to the competitive world of Japanese ikebana (flower arrangement). Riffing on the War of the Roses, a series of wars fought between 1455 and 1487 for the throne of England, Sandaime Richard portrays Richard III as an ikebana master plotting his way to the top.

To subvert the Shakespearean world further, Ong has cast one male actor playing the role of Shakespeare, while all the other characters are played by women playing men, such as Janice Koh as Shylock, or men dressed as women playing men. Ong scrambles the gender code to show how "in society, only the male voice is regarded as legitimate - all other voices are seen as inferior. So only Shakespeare, as a creator of these characters, is appearing as a man.

"The idea that these characters are confronting Shakespeare about his writing is exciting to me. What happens when what you create comes alive? What happens when your creations start to create you? Are they beholden to you forever because you created them?"

Ong thinks these questions are relevant to Singaporeans: "We're always told we're beholden to the government for what it's done for us, that we're not supposed to bite the hand that feeds, that we're not supposed to question them."

Ong says the reason why he's been drawn back to directing another Shakespearean reinterpretation is because of the flexibility of the Bard's text: "The thing about Shakespeare is that his plays are very open. You could take the premise and invert it completely. You don't find that in the works of most playwrights - they tend to be concrete and didactic. I am a director, I am an arranger of text and ideas, and Shakespeare allows me to arrange a lot."

Ong says he's attracted to Noda's Sandaime Richard because of the way it allows for multiple interpretations: "Noda works with a strong sense of the nonsensical and I like that. He weaves a kind of large narrative fabric that you can get into and tease things out. He plots and co-plots, so the play is not focused on two or three characters or themes. That kind of complexity is what I look for."

He adds: "I am a dramatist and I believe in stories. But I never accept the stories as they are written. I always want to recast and harness them to look at the issues of today."

  • Sandaime Richard plays at the Victoria Theatre from Sept 8-10 at 8pm. Tickets from S$30 to S$60 are available from Sistic