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Hyperkinetic sensory overload
ONG Keng Sen's 1997 Lear broke new ground for the way it blended various Asian performance idioms into one seamless tale. It brought him international fame or notoriety - depending on which side of the intercultural performance fence you sit. His new play Sandaime Richard similarly melds different Asian aesthetics to grand effect, even if it's not as lucid as Lear or Lear Dreaming (2012).
Sandaime Richard (which means "Richard the Third" in Japanese) reimagines Shakespeare's famous villain in a courtroom drama where both Richard and Shakespeare are simultaneously placed on trial: Richard for the murder of a rival, Shakespeare for defaming Richard by portraying him as bitter and disfigured in his play.
Written by Hideki Noda, Sandaime Richard is extremely funny as it tries to upend Shakespeare's reputation, forcing one to imagine him not just as an incredible wordsmith but also as an opportunistic storyteller ready to bend historical facts for the sake of a sensational tale.
If Lear was a political allegory of Asian patriarchy and Singapore power structures, Sandaime Richard is a veiled interrogation of Singapore's governance. By having Richard III and his lawyer Shylock challenge Shakespeare's motives, it parallels a growing interest here to look more closely into our history and recast our narratives, as seen in the graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew, the film 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy by Jason Soo and the play Hotel by W!ld Rice.
As Sandaime Richard presents rich thematic layers to be peeled, Ong's mise-en-scene seem designed to overwhelm as much as it impresses. The intercultural juxtapositions include Japan's old theatre traditions and contemporary neon-infused pop culture against Indonesian music and shadow puppetry. The hyperkinetic fusion deliberately veers from slick to unwieldy to downright unnerving, as the play's tone shifts from light-hearted to tense to aggressive, and back again.
These fragmentations work most effectively in the concluding scene where the wayang kulit screen is flipped, such that the audience is sitting on the same side of the shadow puppeteer. We watch the puppeteer sing and animate the puppets violently, while Shakespeare is grilled for taking extreme artistic licence in his writings.
The cast of eight playing multiple characters is generally outstanding. Singapore's Janice Koh navigates the quick mood and character changes brilliantly. Japanese TV star Seika Kuze is hilarious as various eccentric characters. And onnagata (female impersonator) Kazutaro Nakamura is a hoot as the melodramatic Richard III.
This reviewer has his favourites among Ong's extensive oeuvre. But it does seem that Ong works best when he's building a script by himself or with a playwright from scratch or from interviews and archival material (such as in The Incredible Adventures of the Border Crossers and National Broadway Company). When working with a published script or score (as in the case of Sandaime Richard and 2013's Facing Goya), there is a sense of the existing script being stretched too thin to accommodate his grand and suffusive aesthetic vision.
Still, it is a vision that is large and ever-expanding. And it keeps one curious about what he will do next.