Friday, 1 April 2011

108 Heroes - Tales from the Water Margin, a review

A modern interpretation of the classic novel.

The Performance Venue

It is a classical novel that has been widely revered in Japan, a subversive tale that was banned in China intermittently until the end of the Cultural Revolution.  108 Heroes - Tales from the Water Margin (水滸108 - 忠義堂) was my much awaited programme of the 2011 Hong Kong Arts Festival.  For a multi-arts performance like this, the Lyric Theatre of the HKAPA demonstrated itself as a befitting venue.  With the stage extended towards the seating area for design reasons, this arrangement incidentally helped induce a cohesion between the performers and the audience.  Also the compact seating and U-shaped layout managed to generate interactive vibes in the air that was not seen at the Cultural Centre and Kwai Tsing Theatre.

Collaboration between Taiwan and the Mainland

Laughing faces from left to right:
Wu Hsing-kuo (吳興國),director; Chang Ta-chuen (張大春),playwright;
and Chau Wa-kin (周華健), composer.

The Contemporary Legend Theatre of Taiwan was the brainchild of the production offering most of the creative forces on direction, playwright, music, choreography and design.  Meanwhile the Shanghai Theatre Academy provided expertise on Peking opera styling and most of the young acrobatic actors.  Without getting too sentimental, this joint project across the straits illustrated one form of pragmatic collaboration where one troupe might play a bigger role than the other.  It did not necessarily imply the dominant one would steal the show.  In this case, small roles by the young actors did.

Setting Limits to “Mix-and-Match”

Alexander Liu as Chao Gai, the original gang leader risen from death.

The eclectic array of classical opera singing and choreography, street dance, hip-hop, pop-rock (guitar and drum solos) were stimulating to the senses in the show.  It was deliberate that each category did not mix but instead arranged one after another.  The director was wise not to be overly ambitious to re-invent especially on the classical idioms.  There are limits to what we nowadays call “mix-and-match”.  Admittedly, the pop singing was a bit feeble with simplistic chorus lines and predictable melodies.  It rendered the performance with skeptical commercial overtones.

Visual Design of Characters

Xing Peng-yuan as Lu Jun-yi,
a righteous general turned gangster.

Liu Jin as Hu San-niang and Sun Er-niang, a dual role on two strong heroines.

I booked early for the tickets and was looking for seats close enough to see the details of the costumes, make-up and hair styling.  Quite a gamble but the catchy outfits highlighted in the publicity material was worth their share.  As shown above, the integrated visual imagery was fantastic and worked well as if to generate a cosmic reality of their own, a convincing parallel world of chivalry in a corrupt society.

Dynamic Use of the Stage

  Closer look of make-up on a warlord.  Note that there is a modern interpretation with naturalskin colour revealed.

It was another domain which shone.  The stage was extended with angled walkways against the front.  In between these narrow passages, there were pits where musicians were located.  The performers used these walkways extensively for marching parades one often sees in traditional Chinese opera.  The result was an interesting reference to fashion show and successful augmentation on the width of the stage.  In addition, there were unexpected shooting of arrows during fight scenes to the side of the proscenium that landed only a few meters from the nearest audience. It was daring and effective to stretch the horizontal boundaries of the stage.

I also liked the use of trampolines that were placed down in the pits.  During chase scenes, the memorable midget hero Wang Ying (played by Gao Feng) bouncing up and down from the stage line to evade from the pursuers was both spectacular and comical.  This added an extra vertical dimension to the stage apart from the usual split platforms above the stage.

A Dash of too much Sensationalism
Lin Chao-hsu as Shi Qian making a scene with a stolen chicken.

The monologue of Shi Qian on the stolen chicken was fun but a bit contrived and too elaborate to have definitive meaning. Personally, I felt the actor Lin Chao-hsu had already earned his place by spitting fire once but surely not three times.  For a first class artistic performance, there is unfortunately a thin line to draw between what is just right and what is excessive.  I once saw the Rocky Horror Picture Show in the same venue.  The performers were pretending to terrorize the audience towards the end of the interval at public areas.  Nice gimmick from a commercial plot, but I had higher expectation on an Arts Festival show.

Fatal Weakness
Wu Hsing-kuo as Song Jiang, the flawed pacificist gangleader.

The abridged storyline left out the core lesson intended by the original author on the notion of unquestioning loyalty that led to fatal consequences, in other words CRITICAL THINKING.  According to the novel, most of the gang heroes were sacrificed through Song Jiang’s leadership.   Chang Ta-chuen as playwright did not bring out Song's flawed personality as a simplistic loyalist over the emperor whilst leading a group of outlaws whose basic loyalty rest with the brotherhood.  There was too much bravado but not enough narratives on human feelings like betrayal, bigotry and greed.  This classic tale of chivalrous outlaws of 14th century is still very much relevant today.   But the message was not forthcoming in the show.  It was damning failure of a serious production that managed to leave the audience with lasting visual images, but very few on inspirations.

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