Send in the Clowns: Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale by the Hong Kong Shax Theatre Group & La Trobe University Student Theatre
Reviewed by Ong Jie Yee
The second Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts (Asia TOPA) returns with a modern retelling of William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale — this time through the lens of the colonised.
It is a cross-cultural collaboration generously supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs. With the intention to tell a story about the far-reaching legacy of colonialism, the University of Hong Kong’s Shax Theatre Group and La Trobe University’s Student Theatre joined forces for the very first time. And what better play to get their message across than the Bard’s classic romance.
From the Pearl of the Orient to the Land Down Under
The Winter’s Tale is known for its flagrant subversion of the ‘24-hour time span’ convention in plays. In other words, during the Bard’s time, it was almost compulsory that the plot of a play be resolved within 24 hours in the world of the story. It is pleasing to see that the production team not only gave thought to this, but pushed it further in terms of time and space. The play begins in colonial Hong Kong and ends in 1970s Australia, which is certainly fresh and fascinating for Australian audiences. Incorporated into Act I were outfits, props and characters that accurately depicted bourgeois life under colonial Hong Kong, for example traditional Chinese qipao, a traditional Chinese opera dance, and a maidservant on standby.
The plot remains faithful to Shakespeare’s original work: paranoid King Leontes suspects that his best friend King Polixenes is having an affair with his wife, and is consumed by a rage and jealousy which will eventually destroy himself and his loved ones. From text to onstage vocalisation, the lines were also presented word-for-word, unaltered. But what was severely lacking was the cast’s delivery of those lines. As with many of Shakespeare’s works, The Winter’s Tale is heavy with poetry and blank verse; it’s safe to say that they are the crux of this play and drive the plot forward. Leontes’ soliloquy in Act I Scene II, to Autolycus’ (Jayde Hopkins) singing in Act IV Scene III, it felt as though the students were merely regurgitating whatever they memorised without understanding and internalising the meaning of the play. Not even the alliteration and sibilance in “To taste of my most worst”, “kill a king” and “The stars, I see, will kiss the valleys first”, which are supposed to be uttered clearly to place emphasis on the mood of various scenes, could be heard.
Send in the Clowns
It was only during the Shepherd (Paul Doogood) and the Clown’s (Lakshmi Ganapathy) entrance in Act III Scene III and onwards that the play began to liven up the atmosphere in the theatre. The two comic relief characters were the highlights of the play and laughter filled the theatre throughout the second half of the show. From playing musical instruments to putting on a stereotypical hip-hop persona, Doogood and Ganapathy managed to do it all to the point where it almost seemed as if the two were the ones who carried the play rather than the main characters.
This version of The Winter’s Tale by the Hong Kong Shax Theatre Group and La Trobe University Student Theatre is a crossover apt for the times that we live in. Frankly, there is still much room for improvement, but in hindsight, it is certainly a step in the right direction for cross-cultural collaboration, diversity and inclusion for all.