Mercantile relevance

Singapore might be halfway across the world from London, but it's throwing a big birthday bash for the 450th birthday of Shakespeare soon - in the form of The Singapore Repertory Theatre's (SRT) popular Shakespeare in the Park.

Playing for a full month, SRT expects some 30,000 people to troop past Fort Canning's gothic gates for the Merchant of Venice, including schoolchildren from Jakarta, Brunei and Malaysia for one of the only large-scale Shakespeare productions of its kind in this part of this world.

"People used to ask, 'Will you go to see Shakespeare in the Park', but it's now a question of 'When will you go'," says Charlotte Nors, SRT's executive director, of how the outdoor showings of Shakespeare has become a classic arts outing in Singapore.

This year's production is directed by Bruce Guthrie who first came to Singapore as the associate assistant director for The Bridge Project's Richard III, backing up Sam Mendes as the director. Guthrie went on to direct two other Shakespeare in the Park productions - Twelfth Night (2012) and last year's Othello.

This year he works with Scott Graham from Frantic Assembly, which has made its name in physical theatre - combining movement, design, music and text. The two Scotsmen found a similar wavelength, Guthrie quips, even though it's his first time working with Graham. "I've wanted to since my fiance had been in one of his productions," says the London-based director.

"Graham's collaboration has been incredibly useful as it gives another dynamic to the production which is also a visual spectacle, and the sets are also enormous and bold," he says, adding that the set designer, Richard Kent, is a young, exciting designer from the UK.

The rest of the creative team are equally impressive - with several Tony and Olivier award-winners among them, such as Rick Fisher (lighting), Mike Walker (sound) and Ruth Ling, Singapore's Young Artist Award winner, who composed the music.

So the Singapore audience can expect a very physical, almost action-packed Shakespeare play, staged to be relevant - "it's a very fast-paced piece, with many scene changes, and it's quite political, but its relevance has increased with time," describes Guthrie.

In the story, Antonio, a Venetian merchant, lends money to Bassanio so the latter can court Portia. However, as he doesn't have cash, he acts as guarantor for Bassanio to borrow money from Shylock, a jewish moneylender. Shylock, who bears a grudge against Antonio, however agrees to lend Bassanio money without interest, but if the loan is unpaid, Shylock is entitled to a pound of Antonio's own flesh.

His grudge is further compounded when Shylock's servant leaves him to work for Bassanio, and his daughter elopes with one of Antonio's friends.

Bassanio wins Portia's hand but Antonio loses his ships at sea and forfeits his bond to Shylock, whereupon the moneylender demands his flesh. Portia and her handmaiden disguise themselves as men of law, peruse the contract and declare that while Shylock is entitled his flesh, to his delight - he can only extract it without shedding Antonio's blood. Even more concessions are obtained from Shylock, and it all ends well.

"The focus here is on the capacity of power over someone," reads Guthrie, pointing out that Shylock's greed is probably also fuelled by his sense of betrayal by his daughter and servant.

The play is contemporised, and Guthrie also read up on the relationships between high profiled daughters and their fathers, for his approach to the play.

Interestingly, Guthrie's directing of Shakespeare plays has only been done for SRT. Last year, he directed a musical and a movie, so he usually works with a wide range of productions. "I'm interested in good stories and great actors,". Was he daunted when he started directing Shakespeare? "Only because I've got such a high opinion of the Bard's plays myself. Ultimately, my job is to create a world and tell a story," he concludes.

The Merchant of Venice is from April 30 to May 25, at Fort Canning Park, with special student nights on Fridays. The gates will open at 6.30pm for picnickers, and performances commence at 7.30pm. Tickets are from $45 and can be obtained from

This article was published on April 18 in The Business Times.

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