Magic, mischief and a love for nature lies at the heart of this year’s production of Shakespeare in the Park. An annual affair that started almost 25 years ago, Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT)’s acclaimed programme sees the iconic playwright’s works staged amidst the lush greenery of Fort Canning Park. While unconventional, the play’s location gives way to a uniquely laid-back atmosphere as well as unparalleled potential for creativity in terms of staging and design.
“I feel that it’s important for Singaporeans to have an experience like this—where you can come in your shorts and T-shirt, and bring some nasi lemak or a bottle of wine. It is a great leveller that makes theatre more accessible,” shares Gaurav Kripalani, the artistic director of SRT. “You get to lay down under the stars with your favourite food and drink, and we will regale you with plays that remain as relevant and important today as they were centuries ago.”
After a five year break, Shakespeare in the Park returns with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Four lovers elope into the forest, a group of amateur actors prepare to put on a play for a royal wedding, and the strained relationship between the Fairy King and Queen throws the world out of order. Falling victim to the pranks of mischief-maker Puck on Midsummer Night, they find themselves tangled in an intricate—and hilarious—conundrum.
Shifting between the real world and the realm of the fairies, nature—and the idea of natural order—becomes a key theme. The set and costumes, beautifully designed by Richard Kent, bring the play into the modern day. Towering stacks of oil refinery chimneys underscore the stark conflict between industry and nature, while costumes separate mundane reality from the magic of the fairy realm.
It’s also fitting, then, that SRT has put sustainability at the forefront of the production. Serving as the first step in an ongoing journey towards long-term sustainability, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a learning experience for the company to thoroughly examine its own operations and identify all the areas in which change can happen.
Here, Kripalani and Kent take us through the process of bringing the play from page to stage—detailing the inspiration behind the show’s striking set and vibrant costumes, as well as the sustainability measures taken along the way.
The set and costumes in a production can often tell a story of their own. What did you hope to convey through your designs?
Richard Kent: One of the key things that happens in the play is Hermia’s father denying her love. The way we saw it, he prioritises business over love. And so, working with an environmental theme—and exploring the idea of business being more important than human values—we played with the idea of creating an industrial space.
Gaurav Kripalani: When you look to our country’s horizon from different parts of Singapore, one of the things you see is our oil refineries. You see the chimney stacks in the distance, and the smoke coming out of them. I’ve grown up with them, and always thought that it was natural to view them as part of the landscape. That’s a sign of the post-industrial world we live in.
RK: But when you put it in the middle of a park, it becomes an alien thing. That was definitely part of our intention—to put something we all take for granted in an environment that doesn’t warrant or want it.
What about the design of the costumes?
RK: The costumes are split into two sections. There’s the real world and there’s the dream world. The costumes in the real world have a utilitarian quality—very simple and stripped back with a muted colour palette—but in the second act, when we enter the dream world, we get to go wild.
There was a lot of brainstorming with the cast and we came up with beautiful ideas on who the fairies are and what they do, including the idea that the fairies are sustainable creatures that find materials and reuse them. So their costumes are all meant to look like jumpsuits that the fairies have found, cut up and refashioned themselves. In a way, following the theme of business versus love, the concept for the fairies’ costumes reflects love. The fairies embrace crafts and cherished objects and the little things in life.
“Shakespeare in the Park is a great leveller that makes theatre more accessible”
How did the outdoor nature of the production influence the design and staging of the show?
RK: It’s very rare to find a space where you get to build such a tall set, and every person in the audience, no matter where they are sitting, can experience the same sightline. Beyond being able to do exciting things like bringing in the cast through the audience, it gives us the ability to be very big and bold with the set. What’s amazing about Fort Canning Park is that you’ve got a great view of the trees and the skyline, which instantly adds to the play.
What were some of the challenges faced in incorporating sustainability into the production?
GK: The end goal is for us to be are completely sustainable, and for our carbon footprint to be zero. We are passionate about making this viable and safe, but right now, to be sustainable is a very expensive process, especially for a non-profit organisation. Beyond cost, it’s also about being extremely thorough with our processes. We had a lot to learn and a lot to do, so we started working with a company called Engie Impact to help us establish a baseline audit. Over the course of this production, they will look at our processes and give us a report, which will then help us create a roadmap for future productions. Of course, we have taken small steps for this show too. We are encouraging audience members, cast and crew to avoid single-use plastics. These are basic things that we can and will do now to begin the process.
Down the line, for future productions, it’s not as simple as just deciding to use sustainable materials. It’s pointless to say we’re only going to create costumes from recycled fabrics, only to spend thousands and leave a significant carbon footprint flying the materials in from overseas. Rather, what we’re doing is looking at the process as a whole, and working out where we can play a part. It involves figuring out where the materials are sourced from, who our upstream and downstream partners are in terms of set providers and what materials our seamstresses use. These are all things we’re trying to learn this time around, so we can work towards long-term sustainability.
What are you most excited for audiences to see?
RK: There are some really fun bits that I think audience members will enjoy. Especially after COVID-19, we have tried to create a vibrant show with a lively, party-like atmosphere. There’s plenty of comedy that’s already built into the text, but we’ve also added more, in particular with our choreography, composition and music.
GK: People come for A Midsummer Night’s Dream expecting comedy, yet one of the first things you hear is a father telling his daughter, “I order you to marry the man that I choose for you. You will do this, or face death,” and it makes you gasp. When the lovers run away, they enter a fantasy world full of magic. The mayhem that ensues is great fun to watch. They frolic and splash around in water. Titania has her political speech—or what I call her sustainability speech. But the question is: when the lovers come back to the real world, what have they learned? How can they make the real world a better place? As audiences come on this incredibly fun journey with us, we would like for them to view the story with a sense of awareness and take something away at the end.
Book tickets for Shakespeare in the Park here.