He is one of Asia’s foremost theater directors, and Ong Keng Sen looked to be enjoying his latest challenge when we met in Tokyo in March during rehearsals for “Sandaime Richard,” Japanese dramatist Hideki Noda’s iconoclastic adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Richard III.”
The Singaporean dramatist was preparing to stage the famously complex play two months later at the annual World Theatre Festival Shizuoka — where, he said, he was intent on pursuing his longstanding focus on what he calls “New Asia” by weaving its multiple realities and hybrid identities through Noda’s “machine-gun” Japanese script.
In practice, he was transforming Noda’s radical reworking of the Bard’s original into a multilingual, cross-cultural and hypermodern play involving Japanese, Singaporean and Indonesian performers trained in different disciplines and traditions.
As Ong — who is also artistic director of the performance company TheatreWorks (Singapore) and director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts — went on to explain, “With this year being the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, we’re putting him on trial via Noda’s illuminating work he wrote and first performed in 1990.”
“Of Noda’s three Shakespearean adaptations, this interests me most as it looks at the writer’s role and how he addresses the truth.”
Born the year before Singapore became a republic independent from Malaysia in 1965, Ong constantly queries in his works what it means to be a citizen of that city-state comprising Chinese, Malay, Indonesian, Indian, European and other peoples.
In the same vein, he also likes to counterpoint modernization and tradition, the local and the global, to examine what it is to be “Asian” in this time — in the process creating works juxtaposing Asian traditional performance forms and various languages used onstage.
That signature directorial style first blossomed with the international, collaborative Shakespeare trilogy Ong launched with his controversial “Lear” in Tokyo in 1997, followed by “Desdemona” (at the Adelaide Festival in 2000) and then “Search Hamlet” (in 2002 at Kronborg Castle in Denmark, aka Elsinore in Shakespeare’s play).
Now, almost two decades on, Ong still remains keenly interested in the multiplicity of identities in one Asian country in particular, namely Japan.
As he explained when we met, he sees Tokyo as “one of the most vibrant cities for theater, with works ranging from male-dominated kyogen (traditional comic theater) and kabuki to the 100-year-old all-female musical theater troupe the Takarazuka Revue” — one reason he said he cast the onnagata (male kabuki actor specializing in female roles) Nakamura Kazutaro as Richard in “Sandaime Richard.”
In this Chinese-box-like metatheater, the dynastic Wars of the Roses (1455-85) fought for control of the English throne transform into a story of infighting within an ikebana (flower-arranging) “school.” Parts of the play are also set in a courtroom where Richard, portrayed as the Grand Master of Ikebana, stands accused of atrocities alongside Shakespeare, played by the kyogen actor Doji Shigeyama, who is on trial for falsifying history and defaming his lame younger brother — while the vengeful prosecutor, Maachan (Singaporean actress Janice Koh), later turns out to be Shylock arrived from “The Merchant of Venice.”
On top of that, the former Takarazuka otokoyaku (star actress in male roles) Seika Kuze takes on four parts — as the judge, Shakespeare’s father, Iemoto (head of an ikebana school) and his son, Keepsake; Miki Takii from Shizuoka Performing Arts Center plays Anne, the Bard’s wife, and King Richard III; Junko Emoto from the “girl-power” Kegawazoku troupe portrays Chiropractor and Truth, and — last but not least — Jajang C. Noer, who’s active in Singapore and Indonesia, plays Shakespeare’s mother and Iemoto’s wife.
Not only all that, but the cast also features Balinese wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) master I Kadek Budi Setiawan performing against the surrealistic cyberspace created by visual artist Keisuke Takahashi and composer/club DJ Toru Yamanaka.
Finally, as the play comes to a close, it’s as if fiction and reality just dissolve right there on Ong’s whitewashed stage echoing to the puppeteer’s chants. As the director intended, audiences this year in Shizuoka and Singapore were left mesmerized — as they will soon be again across Japan.
“Sandaime Richard” is in Japanese, English and Indonesian, with surtitles in Japanese and English. It runs Nov. 26 to Dec. 4 at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in Ikebukuro, then tours to Kumamoto (Dec. 8), Suita, Osaka Prefecture (Dec. 11), Kochi (Dec. 14) and Fukuoka (Dec. 17). For details, visit tokyo-metropolitan-festival.jp/en/program/549.