Haunted Theatre: Not Happy Together

It is supposed to be a scene of bittersweet romance. Two female Chinese Opera performers, Mei (played by Li Yan) and Nan (Lee Pei) lie together on a bench under a hanging paper umbrella. As Mei moves to the chair to get ready to leave, Nan kneels down and helps her with her stockings.

“I envy your stockings,” says Nan in Mandarin, “they accompany your legs the whole day.”

However, the English subtitles, projected onto a small piece of cloth overhead, utterly destroy the mood with the following words: “I am jealous of your panties.”

And the audience just about pee in their pants. Telling two interweaving tales of forbidden love, Haunted Theatre, presented by Take Three Productions and staged at The Actors Studio on October 11 – 14, comes undone frequently with comic effect when its overt seriousness meets the subversive subtitles.

Producer Godzilla Tan has decided to provide English subtitles chiefly to attract an audience beyond his usual conservative Chinese-theatre crowd. Writing in English is quite a feat for Godzilla’s Chinese-educated production team. Their publicity materials for the recent Kong Arts Festival was so badly written it was quite endearing. Lots of wonderful people have since begged Godzilla to let them help out, and for this round he has let them.

Even so, grammatically correct subtitles don’t necessarily lend themselves to dialogues. After opening my big mouth to point out some instances of discrepancies in the subtitles, I found myself stuck in the Actor Studio Theatre control room for three hours after the performance one evening, rectifying lines like “Our love has dried up like petals. And I am the pistil.”

Actually, what Godzilla enjoys most about English-theatre audiences are their big mouths. “It helps us improve,” he says. In that spirit, he has also asked me to write a review of the show. “Even if the review is bad,” says Godzilla, “never mind, just write only.” Well, he asked for it.

Haunted Theatre, as a story, seems too intent on portraying gay lovers as tragic characters wronged by a cruel world. In the first story, Gigi, the daughter of Mei, arrives at an abandoned theatre and learns that the gender-neutral ‘he’ in her late mother’s diary refers to an angry female phantom of the opera, Nan. It seems Nan does indeed have a lot to be angry about: Mei has married the producer, Mei has a daughter, Mei has the lead role. Lee Pei, who was brilliantly seething as Goneril in a Chinese version of King Lear, is here reduced to a tediously glum butch. Li Yan, however, manages to play Mei with deceptive casualness. She also plays Mei’s daughter, Gigi, so differently that I thought they are two different actors.

The other segment is a dance in which two samurai warriors fall in love in the midst of war. But when one is killed by ‘those who don’t understand’, the other performs a long ritual and takes revenge for his dead lover. Despite starting well with tightly choreographed sword clashing, their subsequent movements are nothing more than slow expositions on their grief. The actors, strangely named as Hi Karu and Jerry Blue, are competent but lack a strong stage presence to make the minimalism convincing.

In his attempts to make us completely sympathise with his characters’ suffering, director/writer CM Hon has failed to show us if these relationships are worth the suffering at all. A number of years ago, Singaporean critics reprimanded their local theatre practitioners for constantly using homosexual characters as a source of camp and mirth. Malaysia seems to be coasting the opposite shore by torturing our gay characters with overwrought melodrama. Apart from A Language of Our Own a couple of years back, and Gross Indecency recently (if not for its wit, this would have also been about the whiny weepy relationship between Oscar Wilde and Bosie), we have hardly any play about gay relationships that treads the necessary balance of laughters and tears. Without providing the evidence of sanity and humanity within the kind of relationship the world charges as unnatural, how can we hope to defend the lovers’ rights to their choice of sanctuary?

But in a way, Haunted Theatre represents an achievement for Take 3 Productions. Besides their willingness to embrace difficult subjects, it is also reveals their sense of innovation: the use of subtitles will hopefully be here to stay. They are already planning to bring this play to Canada, Hong Kong and Australia, and also to invite artists from these countries to Kong Arts Fest next year. Godzilla’s ambition to make theatre an encompassing experience for all — gay, straight, English-speaking, Chinese-speaking, whatever — comes ever closer to being realised.

First Published: 22.10.2001 on Kakiseni

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