Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Shakespeare in the Park 2013: Director Bruce Guthrie Shares about the Staging of "Othello"

The historical Fort Canning Park, with its colonial buildings and landmarks, has always been a magical setting for a good Shakespearean play.

This year, the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) has continued its yearly tradition of producing Shakespeare in the Park. And this time, the chosen play is the dark, jealousy-fueled tragedy called "Othello".

With a cast consisting of British actor Daniel Francis as main protagonist Othello, and local-based thespians like Daniel Jenkins and Wendy Kweh, the updated version of the play kicked off its run on 24th April. Apparently, it has already been watched by an audience of over 25,000.

Red Dot Diva has already seen the play, and she cannot deny that the staging was indeed very grand and elaborate. But what she enjoyed most from the play was Daniel Jenkins' portrayal of Iago. The actor had given a wonderfully nuanced performance of a villain without a shred of remorse, which made him even more evil than she ever thought possible.

Director Bruce Guthrie returned to the Red Dot Island this year for the epic production of "Othello". He had also helmed the previous year's light-hearted romantic comedy "Twelfth Night" - which boasted of a gorgeous set that consisted of a beach, a mansion, a swimming pool and a visual projection of an ocean view.

Red Dot Diva got hold of Bruce Guthrie to share more about himself, and what went on behind the staging of "Othello".


Red Dot Diva: Tell us a little about yourself. 
Bruce: I am a Scottish Theatre director who lives and works in London. I trained as an actor but started directing before I left Guildford School of Acting and went full time as a director a year after graduating. I much prefer directing as it gives me the opportunity to shape and tell the whole story rather than playing one specific part of it - the conductor, not a musician. I have a great respect from actors though. They have to give so much of themselves in each and every performance in a physical, emotional and personal sense.

I have been lucky enough to have worked with and learned from some of the best theatre directors in the world such as Howard Davies, Sir Richard Eyre, Deborah Warner and Sam Mendes. And that I've been working constantly for the past three years at a job I truly love. Last year was a great year for me and I hope that 2013 will be even better.

Red Dot Diva: How did get involved with SRT's Shakespeare in the Park productions?
Bruce: Directing "Othello" is my third time in Singapore working with SRT. The first time was at the Esplanade Theatres with "The Bridge Project - Richard III" starring Kevin Spacey and we had a fantastic time while in Singapore. It was one of the highlights of what was a magical tour.

The people here really responded to the production and all the education workshops we did while we were here. I was struck by the ambition of SRT to bring in and create home grown productions of a world class standard. So I accepted their invitation and directed "Twelfth Night" as last year's Shakespeare in the Park and had a lovely time doing so. The audiences were positive to our production last year and so I am back to direct "Othello" this year. Hopefully, I will be back here again in the future.

Red Dot Diva: What drew you to tackle Shakespeare and specifically Othello? Do you think today's audiences are still able to relate to it?
Bruce: It is one of the greatest tragedies in all of literature. The themes are epic and deal with issues that we face today. The feelings of jealousy runs pretty strongly throughout the play. I think, there are many different kinds of jealousy and the play explores them in a variety of ways in varying degrees of intensity.

The great thing about Shakespeare's greatest plays is that we can all relate to them on some level. We have to remember though, this is not a play about jealousy, this is a play about characters who are made to feel jealous either by circumstances that have occurred before the play has started or are create during the course of the play. Shakespeare writes characters incredibly well. They evolve throughout the play and are very different people at the end of the piece.

Red Dot Diva: Were there liberties taken to the original language of Shakespeare in this modernized version?
Bruce: We have very carefully crafted the text in such a way as to clarify the story. We have also changed a few words within the text in order to further clarify the meaning of the line. This is not a way of "dumbing down" Shakespeare's language. There are some words he uses that have very different meanings today and so, we have adapted these words to keep with the intentions of Shakespeare. 

Red Dot Diva: How is this production of Othello different from what people may have seen?
Bruce: I think the scale of it is so ambitious. We wanted to go bigger and better than last year’s production, and have set it in a very modern world. We want to create the feeling of a nonspecific war zone with rough edges and huge events encompassing a tragic love story at its centre. The production will be a marriage of wonderful classical language with very modern twists and turns. I don't want to give too much away but I am confident the audience will feel they have been given value for money.

Red Dot Diva: Can you talk about adapting and contextualizing Shakespeare for contemporary Singapore audiences?
Bruce: Audiences here are very smart. They were really with "Richard III" and "Twelfth Night" and so I concentrate on delivering the best version of the play I can regardless of where it is playing in the world.

However, there are moments of inspiration and parallels within the play that I feel will deeply resonate with a Singaporean audience. I think Singapore is very much a modern world city. I like to find the right feeling and essence of the play first and then build the world of the play from there with my design team and the actors. The actors have input on costumes and props and well as the feel of the piece. Working with a predominately Singaporean cast helps in the creation of a production the people from here will recognise.

Red Dot Diva: What do you think are the benefits to updating Shakespeare’s work and steering away from the usual tights and high collar?
Bruce: The main benefit is one of relationship with a modern audience. I don't think that any play should be confined by convention. Theatre is about storytelling and finding ways to convey a narrative in an imaginative and effective way. I think people get sucked in more when they can relate to the world they are watching on some level.

Don't get me wrong, traditional versions of his plays have their place too, but you don't have to be traditional in aesthetic to be true to the story of the play. If you can create a new world that fits the story of the play then I am all for it. It's when you make the play fit an idea that you run into trouble. Our production aims to strike a balance that serves the story and our audience alike.


"Othello" will be ending its run this Sunday, May 19th. So if one desires to appreciate a modernized Shakespearean theatre while picnicking under an evening sky, do book your tickets NOW!!


A special thank you to Charlotte Nors from SRT for assisting with this Q&A!

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