Innuendos, sword fights, and dead bodies as far as the eye can see—the distinct hallmarks of a Shakespearean drama. Romeo and Juliet – arguably the most well-known of the Bard’s plays – is certainly no stranger to all three. It charts the tragic story of two star crossed lovers who not only struggle against their feuding families, but also the forces of fate which transpire to keep them apart at every turn. For this year’s Shakespeare in The Park, Singapore Repertory Theatre transports their tale into the realm of urban Singapore, putting a modern twist on a timeless love story.
The play seamlessly weaves modern and traditional elements together: gone are the traditional rapiers wielded by the duellists of the play; in their place, actors brandish knives, clubs and guns to better reflect the urban context the play is set in. Clad in stylish, modern clothes, the cast swagger about on stage, reciting line after line of beautiful verse. This juxtaposition of urban wear and purple prose create a unique aesthetic, resulting in a performance that is both relatable, yet sublime. Language aside, the scenes where Romeo and his buddies tease each other and trade well-intentioned jibes would not have seemed out of place at a void deck, evoking a sense of familiarity that resonates with the audience.
This intricate portrayal of human emotion is where the play excels: it underpins the entire performance, and the audience is treated to an evocative display of love in its rawest forms. Romeo and Juliet masterfully portrays love’s tenderness, as well as love’s savagery: In one moment, a love-struck Romeo quivers in ecstasy as he whispers honeyed words to Juliet; in the next, we see him tremble with rage as his beloved friend Mercutio is slain before his eyes. Lady Capulet’s smiling face as she fawns over Juliet in one scene is contorted into a mask of fury in another, when she sees her nephew Tybalt lying lifeless on the floor. Not even Mercutio, the wellspring of comedy in the play, is spared—the anguish in his voice as he delivers his crazed speech about Queen Mab makes it painfully clear that he too, has been deeply hurt by love before. These potent displays of emotion make Romeo and Juliet a hauntingly powerful performance— a testament to the actors' skill, and the timelessness of Shakespeare's tales.
The beautiful set, courtesy of award winning designer Francis O’Connor, definitely deserves special mention. Even before the show begins, the audience’s attention is transfixed on the labyrinth of stone stairs and platforms; set against Singapore’s urban skyline, it lends form to the grim, modern atmosphere that characterizes the entire play. The stage, set at a right angle, mirrors the feud between the Montague and Capulet families, with cracks emerging from the set as the two opposing forces collide. This backdrop is expertly used to convey the rift between the families, allowing the audience to see the literal divisions between the characters as they duel on stage.
Personally, it was the play’s elegant choreography that left the deepest impression. The fight scenes are sharp, smooth, and meticulously constructed, with the actors executing swift combinations of moves that add a layer of depth to the combat without making the scene too complex to follow. The dancing is alluring and sultry, accentuated by a captivating array of costumes; the Capulet’s grand feast is a dazzling spectacle, where sparkling headdresses bob to the rhythm of the music, while the grotesque masks worn by the dancers leer at the audience. Further complementing this is the lighting and music, used effectively to both enhance the mood of different scenes, as well as facilitate smooth transitions from one event to the next. I particularly enjoyed how the abrupt pauses in the heavy percussion beats added a dimension of restlessness to the scenes.
Romeo and Juliet is a stunning display of excellent design choices, a fantastic set, and stellar acting. Young or old, single or attached, this modern take on Romeo and Juliet is sure to tug at your heartstrings and leave you in awe. In more ways than one, Singapore Repertory Theatre has knocked this year’s production out of the park: artistic and managing director Gaurav Kripalani has unfortunately announced that Romeo and Juliet might be the last Shakespeare in The Park for several years, due to the enormous cost of staging it each year. Those who have yet to experience the magic of Shakespeare in The Park still have one last chance to do so, as the production runs til 22 May; missing such a spectacular show would be a tragedy of its own.
All photos courtesy of Singapore Repertory Theatre