I hate Shakespeare. It’s dull, incomprehensible and irrelevant.
This was my refrain right through school. I had a literature teacher who put me to sleep because all she did was read monotonously from the book, or make us watch those excruciating 1970s BBC black-and-white TV productions, with actors dressed in doublets and hose, who seemed to care more about how they sounded than the meaning of what they were trying to say.
Fortunately, my opinion of Shakespeare changed not long after, thanks to three experiences.
The first was a trip with my parents to Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace and the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company. That put a lot of his plays in context for me and made me understand the history.
The second was acting in Shakespeare productions in college. That taught me that reading the text was not enough. They were plays. To truly appreciate them, you had to watch them performed.
The third was going to my first Shakespeare in the Park production (in California, of all places). I was picnicking with friends amid the most stunning giant Redwood trees watching the Scottish play Macbeth. In the final scene, just as the army advanced on the eponymous king’s castle, the fog rolled in from the ocean as if on cue, and provided a natural camouflage for the soldiers. It was one of the most eerie, powerful moments I had ever experienced in theatre. Instantly, I understood why 400 years on, these plays still have the power to move audiences.
Recently, there has been a debate in the media about whether teaching literature in schools is necessary at all. I read that the number of “O” Level students taking it as a subject has gone from 17,000 in 1992 to 3,000 last year. The rationale is that because it is harder to score an A in literature than the sciences, schools have made it an elective rather than mandatory in order to increase their ranking. The other argument I read is that students struggle with English anyway so why “penalise” them further by making them study literature.
Without exposure to the humanities, what sort of Singaporeans are we creating? A generation devoid of the ability to get lost in a book and be transported to another world; to get immersed in different cultures; to have an understanding of the world around us; to get swept up in the emotions of the characters. To me, this is heart-breaking.
This is why we started doing Shakespeare in the Park at the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT). If we could create that one moment of magic to change someone’s perception of Shakespeare for the better, we would have achieved something. My hope is that everyone, whether they be a student or an adult, have the same epiphany I had. Lying on a blanket in shorts and T-shirt with a glass of wine and your favourite picnic is a bonus. But there’s a bigger goal: Inculcating a love for literature.
This year, the SRT will be staging Othello from April 26 to May 19 as our sixth production at Fort Canning. When I was a teenager, a silly rumour once caused me to doubt a relationship I was in so much that I couldn’t eat or sleep. Trust is a fragile thing. Just the suspicion of it being broken, can have disastrous effects. If only I had seen a production of Othello then, I would have realised that I wasn’t alone in the world. The heartache I was going through had been written about since time immemorial. How are young people going to know this if they aren’t exposed to the greatest playwrights, poets and authors?
The number of people attending our Shakespeare in the Park productions has increased each year. For Twelfth Night last year, we had 30,000 people come and watch the play. Every year, there are fewer and fewer teachers who tell us: “Oh, that play is not on our syllabus this year, so we won’t be bringing our students.”
If this positive trend continues, despite the odds, I will remain an optimist.
The writer is the artistic director of the Singapore Repertory Theatre.