Theatre review: Forbidden City - Portrait of an Empress

Theatre review: Forbidden City - Portrait of an Empress

A visual spectacle

Text: Adibah Isa

Image: Singapore Repertory Theatre

What we loved: Stunning costumes, impressive debut performances and the return of Kit Chan

How did you celebrate turning 15?

You'd have indulged in generous helpings of cake, took one too many instant photos at the "neoprint" booths at Far East Plaza or even spent time alone, reciting your favourite band's lyrics as you sobbed happily or forlornly to sleep — as you do when a milestone has arrived. For Esplanade Theatre, also known as Singapore's iconic durian-shaped arts house, they've decided to blow out the candles by restaging the musical epic, Forbidden City - Portrait of an Empress.

Together with the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT), it's a smart move to bring back both theatre icons and lovers into an institution that's not yet a girl, not quite a woman at the age of 15. If third time's the charm, Esplanade and SRT are banking of a fourth staging to remind us just how extravagant a proudly locally-made theatre production can be. After stagings in 2002, 2003 and 2006, you already know who's behind it — the music's composed by Cultural Medallion Dick Lee, with lyrics penned by the late award-winning playwright Stephen Clark. Based on the memoir With the Empress Dowager of China published by artist Kate Carl in 1906, the story follows the illusive Empress Dowager Cixi, often credited as the woman responsible for the fall of the Qing dynasty and the birth of modern China.

Cheryl Tan as Yehenara in Forbidden City - Portrait of an Empress

We first meet the fictional version of Carl as the curtains open, with a portrait of the Empress hung above. You're transported to China at the start of the 20th century, a country that's been screwed over by multiple British military conquests, the second opium war and the Hundred Days Reform. Citizens are pissed (an understatement of the century, really) and spiteful — then comes along an American artist who's out to uncover the "real" woman behind the status symbol. The tropes of a dramatic retelling are all there: A promising romance and palpable sexual tension between two creatives (Carl and a charming English journalist, George Morrison), a royal member misunderstood and the underlying power struggle between two opposing cultures (East versus West).

As we follow the Empress' narrative of her coming-of-age story, the audience is introduced to a cast of newbies and actors reprising their roles. Filipino actress Sheila Francisco returns as the aged Empress, while Kit Chan — in her much-awaited stage comeback — fills in her shoes in a shortened role as the adult Empress. Malaysian actress Cheryl Tan — who was Juliet in SRT's production of Romeo & Juliet last year — is a bright spark as the young Yehenara, capturing both innocence and anguish in her sing-song voice and subtle mannerisms. Broadway Beng's Sebastian Tan returns as one of the record keepers, while Benjamin Chow — last seen in Pangdemonium's Tango — disappears into his role as the menacing Prince Tun, the scheming royal out to take his brother's throne.

Benjamin Chow as Prince Tun in Forbidden City - Portrait of an Empress

While song numbers such as 'Why Love?' and Why Dream of Love?' might tug at the heartstrings, the dance ensemble in 'Dragon Lady' and 'Blood in the Streets' pumps the adrenaline as your eyes dart back and forth across the stage. And what a brilliant stage it is — Esplanade Theatre houses designer Francis O'Connor's sets brilliantly, with partitions taking the stage through various sequences of celebration, tragedy and even lust. Yang Derong returns to helm costumes, which add to the drama in their blatantly exoticised fashion.

If you haven't caught Forbidden City - Portrait of an Empress, now's the time to be impressed with what Singapore has to offer in the theatre scene — even as you excuse the mainland Chinese narrative, of course. If you have, the production's worth a revisit to see young blood take on a classic tale surrounding love and betrayal, butt-hurt royals and unlikely friendships.

Forbidden City
Forbidden City - Portrait of an Empress runs till 27 August at Esplanade Theatre. Book tickets.