A Man Can Dream
Too long. This play was way too long. I started nodding off in the later scenes. Does this mean Edward Lam's not that great a director? Nope. It means he's got vision.
You see, I've been pondering our theatre scene a while, and I've realised that while we've got a bunch of young, competent directors who've got great rapport with actors, not that many of them are really driven by vision; not that many have some kind of ambitious belief in a transformative new kind of drama they want to create.
Lam's got that kind of vision: in fact, What Is Man? is only the first part of the grand dramatic cycle he wants to create: he's planning four contemporary interpretations of the four great Chinese classic novels, each one to be created over the next four years. This first work's based on The Water Margin, a 16th century novel attributed to Shi Naian, relating the stories of 108 Song Dynasty outlaws as they take refuge by the riverside marshlands. As a thematic focus, he's chosen the issue of masculinity: how, he asks, might the heroes from this classic text still resonate with our present definitions of manhood?
To explore these ideas, he and playwright Li-Hua Chen end up relying heavily on the genre of the gangster movie, which they see as a contemporary genre of texts running parallel to The Water Margin. Thus the play works on a premise of nine men, each coincidentally bearing the names of heroes from the novel, auditioning for a gangster movie through a game of role-play: over and over again, the scenario is played out where a young gangster runs off with his gang-leader's girlfriend. Sometimes it's a car chase, sometimes it's a Mexican stand-off, in one case it's the girlfriend who's run off with the young gangster's girlfriend, and both gangsters are confusedly trying to determine whether to execute the women. In between, we have dialogues between the unseen director and the actors, and monologues by the actors exploring modern day versions of their archetypal characters: the wanderer, the gambler, the thief, the murderer.
To be honest, I'm not sure if the show really works as a drama of ideas. I didn't attain that much new insight into the complexities of the contemporary masculinity (yes, yes, it's embattled, and there's a weird homoerotic element occasionally, no surprises there), and occasionally the treatment's kinda immature (family jewels = penis jokes? And we're supposed to be enlightened when we find out a guy kills people because he's impotent?).
But two things really win over the viewer in this production: aesthetics and imagination. Lam really knows how to fill a stage, whether it's simply with a solo figure with a projection of a tiger's face, a full-on ensemble tableau or a semi-naturalistic setup of a streetlamp and car wreck in the distance. And the range of dramatic elements he pulls into this work is truly impressive - live video, ballroom dancing, shadow play, musical chairs, swordfighting, crosstalk. The genres battle and blend: slapstick comedy follows hot on the heels of psychodrama; naturalism is answered with absurdist hand puppetry.
For all the brilliance of the work, the play does exhaust itself eventually - and considering it's three and a half hours long with no plot or constant characters, it's amazing this doesn't happen sooner. The events of the play reflect (or perhaps engender?) this, with a scene of a drunken karaoke party gradually breaking up in the wee hours of the night, its members almost too tired to stand. Even the omniscient director is shown to have disappeared in later scenes, leaving one of the actors to audition himself in a one-man schizophrenic soliloquy. Perhaps intentionally, the work loses its way, embracing uncertainty.
But as I write, I'm starting to realise how closely the figure of the director is linked with that of the outlaw: both creation and rebellion are interpreted as masculine acts of agency. All the characters, whether describing their lives as actors or performing monologues as outlaws, express a sense of dissatisfaction with the everyday role of the man as breadwinner, householder, husband, father, son. Desperate or triumphant, every character desires to be a hero, one who stands out of the crowd, yet, like the heroes of The Water Margin, these figures tend to be doomed, without futures.
Even the opening scene, with actor Sebastien Shien in contemporary dress performing the Beijing opera role of Lin Chong fleeing by night, projects a sense of pathos: for all the vigour of his acrobatics, he looks lonely and small on stage, shorn of the glory of his warrior costume - and he becomes even more pathetic when the director interrogates him on why he thinks this is a fitting audition piece for a gangster movie.
All masculine acts seem destined to face erosion: even the grand project of the director must decay into confusion. But there is still the vision that lies at the core of the drama, fueling it, even if it goes astray.
The play's closing scene, which the playwright dubs as the iconic moment of the work, is titled "The Director's Dream: The First Man and His Desire", featuring the bare-chested actors collapsing and moving in a pool of abstract video as the director's voice sweeps over them, describing the birth, history, death and rebirth of the universe: pyramids, pagodas, world wars. It's a very strange, yet deeply beautiful moment, reducing the men and women of the play to androgynous beings, full of potential.
What Is Man? inspires: it puts down roots through history and tradition while expressing a very contemporary sense of malaise and confusion about identity. Though it's not a perfect play, I'm hoping the Esplanade will play host to Lam's more recent production, What Is Fantasy, based on The Journey to the West, and future works in this series.
And of course, I'm aware that there's no basis for comparison - after all, Edward Lam's a veteran director, with his pick of actors from Taiwan and Hong Kong an international touring circuit of Sinologues - but it's my wish that more young directors here can gather the guts and resources to create their wild visions, on a grandiose scale. Because it's not just the ability to combine actors and text and tech that makes a good performance. It's the resolute belief that one has an idea worth witnessing on stage. That heroic conviction.
A truly beautiful, splendorously imaginative exploration of the notion of Chinese manhood, springboarding off the premise of nine men with the names of Water Margin heroes auditioning for parts in a gangster movie. Through absurd re-enactments, bone-chilling monologues, swordfighting crosstalks and mass movement pieces, the piece unites the past and the present, brings together Beijing opera acrobatics and Hong Kong genre film and karaoke and the stock market, a strange testament to this image of heroism in the Chinese male as an act of both violence and performance: a beautiful yet destructive tradition of testosterone and careless misogyny. It's utterly amazing what director Edward Lam pulls from his sleeves to confound the eye - live video projections, ballroom dancing, shadow play, musical chairs. But his talent brings with it a dose of self-indulgence, too: we keep flogging on the same basic thematic tropes until they become dead tired, dragging out what could have been a piquant, excellent show to three and a half hours - way longer than necessary.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /