By Lim How Ngean
Adaptation mania has hit Chinese-language theatre recently. Starting with the concurrent showings of Lee Swee Keong’s Woman Born From Dragon and the Dramatic Art Society’s Blanche in July, it continued with the Cantonese Bard offering The Taming of the Shrew earlier this month at The Actors Studio Bangsar while Loh Kok Man’s Playtime presently runs at KLPac – Pentas 2.
While Canto The Taming of the Shrew presented a more straightforward language adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy, the other three were adapted in a heavier fashion: edited and translated text; edited cast list; workshop adjustments by the cast. Woman Born From Dragon was loosely based on the Roland Lee text Jiang Qing: Her Story Untold, while Blanche was inspired and adapted from American realism theatre giant Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, and Playtime from master-of-the-absurd Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs. [Kakiseni will review Taming and Playtime in a different article]
Dances with Chicken
A multi-disciplinary performance, Woman Born From Dragon veers furthest away from the original text. Dragon offers glimpses into the life of Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, or – as she is more notoriously known – Madame Mao.
More of a deconstruction of Roland Lee’s work, Swee Keong has appropriated segments of text for a more theatrical performance, while dancing out other dramatic events of Jiang Qing’s life. Dragon enjoyed the clean and sharp set design that Swee Keong is known for, with a projection screen in the background and a ‘river’ of eggs cutting across the floor of the playing area. The stark installation was, however, ruptured by a startling element: a chicken carcass hanging by a strip of red cloth strung from the grid above.
In typical Lee Swee Keong contemporary Butoh manner, the performer began by interacting with the chicken carcass. Connected by the strip of red cloth, he performs a duet with the carcass, filled with slow tugs, violent entanglements and dramatic knots. The ‘sensuous violence’ that came from his body resonated throughout, and the audience felt uncomfortable, disturbed, aroused and attracted – all at the same time.
As the performance progressed, Swee Keong traversed back and forth across the river of eggs, vacillating between dance and monologue, between the ‘speaking’ and the ‘dancing’ Jiang Qing. Couched in meticulous production design, the cacophonous sound design and clinical lighting (by Mac Chan) in Dragon added to the macabre life of Jiang Qing as it was played out on stage.
Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire deals with Americans in the deep south trying to rebuild their lives around the Great Depression and World War II. School teacher Blanche Dubois turns up at her sister Stella’s tiny, squalid flat and moves in with her, encroaching on Stella’s and husband Stanley’s space. Drama arises from the emotionally unstable Blanche as she negotiates her way through the sexual tension she has built up with Stella’s brusque and uncouth husband.
Director Au Yong Siew Loong had pieced together Blanche from both the original script and its Mainland Chinese translation, and workshopped additional scenes with his cast. The actual play has a cast of 16; Au Yong reduced it to the four essential roles, concentrating on their conflicts and drama, which was substantial enough to keep the play afloat.
The Dramatic Art Society’s Blanche also relocated Streetcar‘s notorious fatal femme Blanche Dubois to a more Malaysian setting. The Chinese Blanche has her origins somewhere in the ‘North’; she comes to live with Stella in the rowdy and somewhat uncultured ‘South’. The original Blanche was born in sophisticated New Orleans as opposed to Stella who has moved to small town Laurel in Mississippi, where Stanley comes from.
The original Streetcar has a small-town-versus-bright-lights-big-city sensibilities to play off for dramatic tension. Blanche’s ‘North’ against ‘South’, however, doesn’t do anything to bring local audiences closer to the story. Laurel, Mississippi and New Orleans immediately establish social and class differences. If only director Au Yong Siew Loong had located Blanche in Damansara and Stanley in Cheras, the tension will be instantly heightened because the places are real, the social-economic, cultural and political differences palpable.
The Untold Story
As works of adaptation go, Dragon has the benefit of not being in the shadow of heavyweight theatre literature like Streetcar. Lee exercised artistic license, editing and plucking text out of Roland Lee’s work, claiming a performance that was very much separate from its source. The ‘dance of Jiang Qing’ segments were Swee Keong originals, so the audience never gets a true idea of the writer’s real feelings about Jiang Qing’s “untold story”. Imbued with a more abstract approach, the audience receives general shades of this Jiang Qing character, which were dark and foreboding, yet sensuous and complex.
Compounded by Lee’s problems of grappling with text as an actor (as opposed to his more accomplished dance moves) when he had to play the ‘speaking Jiang Qing’, we are only left with impressions of the real life tyrant. There were enough factoids flashed on the screen for us about the real Jiang Qing, but it is a highly abstract character we gather at the end.
Lee’s performance does make for a beautiful, complete production. The question is: does Dragon inspire further enquiry into Jiang Qing? Lee’s monodramas never gained enough momentum for the audience to be wowed by the atrocity of Madame Mao’s behaviour and actions.
If the speeches of Jiang were better executed or even if Lee had taken on a co-actor, Dragon would have taken off in a grand manner, in an epic style worthy of an epic evil character, balancing well both abstract and theatrical characterisation.
As for Blanche, the realism factor is important as the mis en scene – set design, lighting, blocking of actors – of the production carries the emotional weight of oppression, hopelessness and claustrophobia. Au Yong did this to great effect with Stella and Stanley’s messy and crummy home, complete with rickety zink bathroom door and a precarious balcony, reminiscent of Pekeliling or Sentul flats.
For most part of the play, the four actors tried valiantly to bring to life the rather sorry story of the diva-esque Blanche who has a deep secret to hide (played by Tan Xiao Hong); the mousy Stella (Liao Rui Li); the brutish testosterone-driven Stanley (Ken Wu) and his mild mannered friend, Mitch (Ye Wei Liang) who tries to court Blanche. Both Xiao Hong and Rui Li fared well in portraying the slightly-off-her-rocker grand lady Blanche, and the homely, subservient Stella respectively.
While the insipid Mitch was played for laughs, Ken’s Stanley lacked gravitas. Actor Ken Wu is a trim, young man who could hardly summon up the cruel bile that Stanley has. His graceful physicality and beautiful face didn’t lend credibility to the cold viciousness required in Stanley. There is no conflict for the audience, who should be attracted to his manly sexual energy while revolted by his crass behaviour. Casting is all important in realism theatre.
Having said everything, both performances do manage to communicate. While Dragon pushed forward a sinister character through dance and production design, the brilliance of the original Streetcar‘s violent emotions managed to shine through enough to convey a hopeless world filled with desperate characters.
Incidentally, both productions had strong women characters who veer toward madness. The wicked Jiang Qing could be insane in her quest for political power while Blanche smoulders with schizophrenic psychosis. Then there is also wily Kate in Taming of the Shrew. Hmm… what is it with women on the brink and Chinese plays recently?
Adaptations are never easy; fraught with precarious negotiations with the original text or work. Woman Born From Dragon and Blanche are worthy forays into adaptation. Now the creators must up the ante by editing or adding, or even morphing bits to strengthen their own hybrids. It takes intelligence – and much tinkering – to dissect the original finely and to rebuild it with local elements or completely different performance styles. Too much of a new ingredient, or too little, can really spoil the original recipe instead of enhancing it.
Lim How Ngean is an actor, theatre director and writer.
First Published: 11.08.2005 on Kakiseni