Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress Review

Forbidden City Review

The long-awaited revival

While contemplating the need for a show of scale and spectacle to launch Esplanade — Theatres on the Bay 15 years ago, the company rightly decided to go local. The result: a lavish production titled Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress, jointly presented by said theatre and Singapore Repertory Theatre. Now revived for the fourth time,  it chronicles the life of Empress Dowager Cixi (1835 – 1908) from her days as a naive 16-year-old Manchurian consort called Yehenara to her eventful rise to become the most powerful and feared person in China.

The narrative is told by the Empress herself, who reminisces her days to American portraitist Kate Carl. Cixi depicts herself as a sad, hapless victim of circumstances, unjustifiably maligned and misunderstood. Unfortunately, being discreet is not one of Carl’s virtues. She shares every sordid, personal detail through letters to George Morrison, an English journalist she met on a train en route to her portrait-painting assignment. Though left unsaid, one can deduce that Carl took more than a casual liking to Morrison.

Morrison allegedly proceeds to twist the gossip he receives to publish bestselling ‘fake news’, portraying the Empress to be a manipulative, ruthless despot, an all-too familiar reputation that the makers of Forbidden City seem to dispute.

All the marketing suggests Forbidden City has aspirations to be a Broadway-style commercial behemoth, and is obviously planned as such, so no audience should expect it to be the last word on a troubled piece of Chinese history. But entertaining and engaging it should at least be, and, to a large extent, it is.

The writing, by Stephen Clark and Dick Lee, ticks every box when it comes to dramatic content and narrative quality. Director Steven Dexter paces it all unerringly with a near-cinematic fluency, even imbuing at times a level of genuine sincerity despite the context not being particularly ripe for nuance. The interjections throughout by a pair of jesting “Record Keepers”, sparklingly played by Sebastian Tan and Dwayne Lau, are also expertly weaved in as to never seem gratuitous nor unnecessarily show-stealing. As a production, it is slick stuff: clever staging; bold yet versatile sets taking a shot at grandeur; evocative larger-than-life period costumes; a soaring, fluid score with orchestration that blended Broadway and the Orient expertly and a big, committed ensemble cast.

Of the leads, Cheryl Tan as the teenage Yehenara stands out with an extraordinary expressive range to both her singing and acting, while Sheila Francisco gives much-needed gravitas to the ageing, reminiscing Empress. The combined experience of Earl Carpenter (as Morrison) and Steffanie Leigh (as Carl) bring moments of Mackintosh sheen and power. Benjamin Chow’s Prince Tun, Yehenara’s brother-in-law, is eloquent and vigorous, though Chow seems to let himself be hemmed in by writing that reduces him to a fairly two-dimensional jealous rival archetype. Much-loved veteran local Chinese pop singer Kit Chan, who plays the middle-aged Empress, is given top billing, but she actually has surprisingly little air-time. Frankly, Chan’s singing has seen better days: her pitching is suspect, her way with her lines uncomfortable, and her acting more textbook than heartfelt.

For all its many merits, however, I find it easier to admire Forbidden City than to love it. That uber-talented Lee’s tunes stubbornly refuse to linger in the memory does not help. Nor the fact that many of the songs sound like a collection of his B-sides. Why, for instance, does Chan’s power ballad, Why Dream Of Love?, sound like a rejected earlier draft of When All The Tears Have Dried, a show-stopping gem from the same creative team’s Sing To The Dawn from 1997? For that matter, I do wonder, why revive Forbidden City and not the equally grand, infinitely more inspired Sing To The Dawn?

Tickets for Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress can be purchased here. Tickets are priced from $48.30. The following discounts for Cat 1 to Cat 4 seats are also available.

1) Watch with Friends package (save up to S$128)
Purchase five tickets in a single transaction to receive one complimentary ticket

2) Family package (save up to S$70)
Enjoy 15 per cent savings for Saturday and Sunday matinee shows

4) Discounts for students, NSFs and senior citizens (above 55 years old)
Enjoy 15 per cent discounts for Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday shows

Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress
8 – 27 August 2017
Esplanade Theatre
1 Esplanade Drive
Singapore 038981