A Dream Under The Southern Bough: A Look Back and A Look Forward

Alongside Goh Boon Teck, artistic director of Toy Factory, we look back at the journey of A Dream Under The Southern Bough, an ambitious trilogy retelling of Tang Xianzu’s 16th century epic of the same name, which combines Kun opera with contemporary staging and elements. The third and final installment, Existence, brings us to the end of this existential tale, or perhaps merely a kind of beginning. Audiences can catch Existence via video-on-demand from 5 to 20 June 2021. 

AE: How do you feel, having completed this trilogy of works?

It is truly an honour to be working hand in hand with such talents across the years – I am moved by the dedication of my team to push through even in the darkest of times; to see our work fully realised in the final trilogy on stage in 2021 is definitely a dream come true.


A Dream Under The Southern Bough: Existence. Photo: CRISPI


AE: How does this final installment, Existence, relate to the experience we’re going through today? 

It is serendipitous to see parallels between our world, and the perfect world of Southern Bough shaken by uncontrollable forces; especially to see Chun Yu Fen surrendering to his vulnerabilities and embracing the waves of reality settling in. It is a humbling and teachable moment for us to perhaps take a step back away from this nightmare, and find peace and strength within our heart, to ground ourselves awake.


A Dream Under The Southern Bough: Existence. Photo: CRISPI


AE: Existence was meant to be staged last year. What’s shifted in the span of a year?

2020 was definitely a shock for all of us, that definitely displaced our minds as artists and theatre makers all around the world; having a year to breathe and recalibrate really did help all of us to find our voice in these strange times. 

I was very adamant about the number of artists involved in the grand finale (18), and with the safety management measures, that really did ensure the safety of our team, however it did push us to think of creative ways to maneuver across the stage whilst observing the measurements. 


  • The different incarnations of Chun Yu Fen. Chun Yu Fen in Beginning. Photo courtesy of Toy Factory.


AE: Can you describe your journey of presenting each of the three installments: Beginning, Reverie and Existence, in the form of one sentence each? How different or how similar are they?

We were careful in the Beginning.

We indulged in Reverie.

We paraded (safely) in Existence.


  • The first installment: Beginning. Photo courtesy of Toy Factory.


AE: What do you think is the value of bringing to life classic stories, and traditional forms like Kun opera, in more contemporary times? 

I believe it is a luxury that we have the opportunity to delve into an era way beyond our forefathers – it is definitely an honour to present the stories that move their people to our generations now.

AE: This time around, people can watch the show from their homes via the VOD. How does this add to the experience of the show? 

Live theatre has found its way into our homes, and we are grateful for that. A Dream Under The Southern Bough: Existence is a lyrically poetic text, and my wish for the home audience is to calmly immerse, and indulge in the beautiful intricacies and nuances of the play. I hope that our supporters and new viewers appreciate the amount of effort and love we have put in to link classical literature for our contemporary audiences.


A Dream Under The Southern Bough: Existence. Photo: CRISPI


AE: What has been the biggest challenge when it comes to presenting this project. Looking back now, how do you feel about that challenge? 

I believe the challenge for us was definitely being familiar with the language and to capture the intricate nuances that lay hidden gracefully in Tang Xianzu’s work; even Chinese scholars have a hard time grasping the underlying meaning behind his text.

We too had a concern of divulging all 44 chapters of the epic to our audience, though I am glad to have my eyes and mind open alongside with my team, for our viewers. It was a worthwhile pilgrimage across the Southern Bough with Tang Xianzu as our initial worries gradually became unfounded on stage.

AE: When you think back to the early days of planning for this trilogy, what do you remember? How does that moment measure up to the current moment? 

I remember the day in the office sharing with my team the great news of having SIFA support our dreams across a span of three years. I remember all of us were in awe and was so excited to start on this journey. Looking back, we had no clue what was in store in the future for all of us, yet to this day, I still admire seeing the same glint of ambition and innocence residing in the eyes of my team and fellow artists.

A Dream Under The Southern Bough: Existence is available from 5 to 20 June via video-on-demand. More info here. Tickets for individual shows are $15. You can also get the all-access bundle of 17 programmes for $60. 

This article is sponsored by the Singapore International Festival of the Arts.

About the author(s)

Nabilah Said

Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.

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