NEARLY four centuries after his death on April 23, 1616, William Shakespeare remains one of the most influential and respected playwrights in classical and contemporary literature.
Widely regarded as the pre-eminent standard of masterful writing and literary craftsmanship, his plays and poems continue to enthrall the masses in various languages, forms and interpretations all over the world.
Come early August, the students of St Joseph’s Private School, Kuching will be all set to present a modern language version of The Tempest, believed by many scholars to be the last play Shakespeare completed on his own.
Guts and gumption
In fact, selecting The Tempest as the school’s maiden drama production originally came about as the result of a student-led initiative last year.
Form 4 student Zachary Aw Zheng Quan who plays the wizard Prospero, shared he and his friends first had the idea of staging a play when they were studying Hikayat Marakarma as part of their literature studies.
“I turned to my friend and said, hey, wouldn’t it be nice if we staged this as a play? So we formed a committee and approached the teachers. Unfortunately, even after
going through many incarnations of the idea, we couldn’t decide on which play to stage until one of the teachers suggested Shakespeare.”
The students took the suggestions on board, went away, and did their own research to narrow down their options, before settling on The Tempest.
The school encouraged the students to pursue the idea as they recognised the opportunity for students to realise and develop their creative talents as well as expose them to the rigours of staging a full-scale drama production.
Preparations and rehearsals kicked off in Feb, with students again leading the charge as teachers and staff deliberately took on supporting and advisory roles.
It is not a small undertaking by any measure for this Jesuit-managed school which was founded in 2012. 130 students are directly involved in the production through the cast and crew, which is about one third of the current 565 student population of SJPS.
Coordinating so many individuals across different functions and sections means that constant communication and feedback is crucial to get everyone up to speed on the latest developments and to make sure decisions are made, communicated and implemented in a timely manner. It wasn’t small decis
“All the students’ opinions and whatever we discuss is collected and then presented to the teachers who have the final say, and then we proceed from there,” production manager Ashley Yap May Yee explained.
“There are 10 departments — publicity, stage, props, set, music, meals for cast and crew, ticketing, technical, multimedia and costumes. Usually, I communicate with the (student) heads and they will liaise with those in their sections.”
The various sections had to learn how to work with individuals within their teams as well as coordinate with other sections to fulfill interdepartmental responsibilities such as ticket sales, designing and printing posters and tickets, and logistics.
Ashley, who is in Form Four this year, credits the student leaders and team members for going the extra mile to collaborate with each other to find solutions to make sure things go smoothly.
“I think one of the things we learned is that it is impossible for everything to be done by one person. We needed a lot of discussions and manpower to make it work,” she added.
Chance to grow
As anyone who has attempted to read Shakespeare can attest to, his plays are imbued with a level of depth which can make them quite challenging to unravel, much less staged in a way which will not leave audiences — unfamiliar with Shakespearean English — all at sea. Thus, it was decided that a modern English script which was faithful to the original text would be staged.
For many of the cast and crew members, this was their first in-depth exposure to the Bard’s work but it has not stopped them from sinking their teeth into the play.
Some of them told thesundaypost they were having a lot of fun getting to know their various characters’ personalities and learning how to portray them through their acting.
Zachary shared he found the play still relevant today even though it had been written so long ago.
“Personally, I feel The Tempest rings very true to human nature — who we are and how we adapt to different situations. It is a mix of comedy, action, and romance of course. I think that’s why the students chose it,” he explained.
Devin Chee Pang shared that playing the tormented character Caliban was ‘painful’ because of the way Caliban came to be, who he was, and who he is throughout the play but also painful physically because most of the time the character is hunched over and lunges ungainly to get around.
“I don’t find it difficult to memorise my lines. In most of Caliban’s lines, there are a lot of emotions. So when it’s my turn, I try to recall the emotions that go with it and it helps,” he said.
Nicola Chan Ling said her character Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, is growing on her.
“She seems very inexperienced and she is fascinated by the things she encounters because they are new to her. She is rather naive. I don’t find there is much similarity between my character and myself — that’s why it’s fun,” she shared.
The role of the play’s main villain Antonio — Prospero’s brother and usurper to the throne — is held by 14-year old Annette Lee Ern — a role she said she enjoys.
She is the second youngest cast member but it would not be her first time performing in front of a large audience as she performed earlier this year in public for her ABRSM course in church music.
Nevertheless, when asked if that earlier experience would help her keep the opening night nerves at bay, she pointed out that performing as an actor required a different type of energy as compared to performing as a musician.
“As an actor, you have to express emotions through your words and your movement whereas playing the piano, you use music,” she said.
“For the cast, it’s also about having fun as we’ve grown quite close over months of practice,” Zachary said.
Fourth former Cheryl Ann Teng Sze Yi carries the responsibility of director on her young shoulders.
Blame Hollywood stereotypes of loud, extroverted directors which, at first, seemed at odds with her quiet, measured demeanour but as the interview went on, it was clear she took the trust given to her very seriously and had given a lot of thought to the magnitude of her responsibilities.
“Basically, I guide the cast in terms of their acting and movement. If there is anything, the cast have to come to me or the teachers (to sort it out). They believe I can do it, so I guess I can do it,” she said, smiling.
Her approach is to step in when necessary to give her input and suggestions for improvement as the cast already has a good idea of what is required of them, thanks to feedback from the teachers-in-charge.
“I think most of the time, we go with the flow and always look for improvement. There are times when I do feel stressed (that the teachers are taking a back seat and letting the students lead). But overall, I feel a sense of empowerment that the teachers would put so much trust in me. Because of that, I try to do better,” she said.
Old and new
Understandably, the teachers are very proud of how their students have wholeheartedly embraced the challenge of staging The Tempest.
“Part of it was about the challenge. We set the bar a bit high but knowing that we will reach it even though it is difficult. I think we enjoy the challenge and we can stretch ourselves and learn much more,” said Brother Stanley Goh Yu-Ming, SJ, one of the production’s advisors.
The teachers are also quite pleased that students are starting to explore Shakespeare’s other works on their own.
“I have noticed there is a bit of a buzz happening around school with more students reading Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare (an adaptation of Shakespearean plays). There is a general interest among the students in what Shakespeare is. I think as we get closer to the performance, the buzz will get louder,” Br Stanley said.
Teacher and production advisor Father Alvin Frederick Ng Sze Syn, SJ acknowledged that Shakespearean works seemed to have all but disappeared from the English literature syllabus in schools, whereas one or two generations ago, it was common for students to be tasked to study at least one of his works.
“From a teacher’s point of view, it’s about learning. We’re not thinking about making money nor about entertaining. It’s about having opportunities to learn. This is one of the reasons why we insisted on Shakespeare because it is still relevant now.
“And if we don’t do it in school, a lot of students will leave without knowing anything about Shakespeare. That’s why it’s important (for us to do this),” added another teacher Lucilla Chin Na.
Catch The Tempest on Aug 7 and 8 (Friday and Saturday respectively) at 7.30pm in the Archdiocesan Curia and Cathedral Parish Centre (ACCPC), St Joseph’s Cathedral.
Tickets are priced at RM20 and RM40, available from July 3 onwards. For more information, contact 082-414575, or 082-420575.