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HomeLifestyleAt New Vision Arts Festival, personal truths are revealed in reimaginings of...

At New Vision Arts Festival, personal truths are revealed in reimaginings of classic works and a multisensory theatre experience

During one segment of the show, the theatre will go pitch dark, and showgoers will hear sounds that create a sense of the walls moving. “With advanced mixing techniques, I can make a room that is 40 by 40 [feet] sound like it’s 80 by 80, or maybe even more,” Tan says.

The immersive nature of the show also promises to make the audience feel like they are sitting right in the middle of the performance. “The actors will be in the galleries behind you, beside you, in front of you … in your face or very far away from you, or even totally outside in the backstage [area],” Tan explains. “I have a dancer, and part of his routine is to run through the audience.”

Through all of these different plays on the senses, Tan hopes to convey a principle that keeps him grounded. “There is the concept of Ahimsa, which I learned from [Mahatma] Gandhi. Ahimsa is non-violence,” he says. “We want to be good people. And, more importantly, I think we don’t want to hurt other people or hurt ourselves.”

In the Name of Hanjin will be presented from November 3 to 5 in the Studio Theatre at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

Another production at the New Vision Arts Festival, The Old Man and His Sea, is a collaboration between two Hong Kong artists who are also long-time friends: Yuen Siu-fai, a Cantonese opera maestro with a career spanning seven decades, and Tang Shu-wing, an award-winning theatre director and actor who has staged many Western classics, including Shakespearean plays, for Cantonese-speaking audiences.

Tang describes the work as a “play within a play” that is inspired by The Old Man and the Sea, the acclaimed novella by American writer Ernest Hemingway. The book details the lengthy battle between an ageing fisherman and a giant marlin caught on his hook.

Yuen was at first drawn to the aesthetics of a film adaptation of the novella, but the story then captured his imagination. “I asked myself: ‘Can it be performed in Cantonese opera?’,” he recalls.

The veteran performer is known for his experimental work in Cantonese opera, which seeks to balance new creative elements with the essence of the traditional art form. So, Yuen turned to Tang for help in bringing his idea to life.

“I felt that it would be quite exciting to have a Cantonese rendition of The Old Man and the Sea in a modern drama framework,” Tang says. “Then I started doing some homework, and came up with the idea of an original production that we titled as The Old Man and His Sea.

Theatre director Tang Shu-wing (left) and Cantonese opera maestro Yuen Siu-fai collaborated to create The Old Man and His Sea, a play within a play that is inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

In this new production, the story begins with a young woman receiving a gift from her estranged grandfather, a Cantonese opera artist, after his death. Its contents reveal that he had an unrealised dream of adapting Hemingway’s masterpiece into a Cantonese opera. This leads the woman on a journey of personal discovery, imagining what it would have been like if her grandfather had fulfilled his vision, and learning many truths about him along the way.

The granddaughter is played by Cassandra Tang, the resident actress of Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio. Although she will share the stage with Yuen as the grandfather, the two never interact directly, yet their emotional connections drive the story.

Yuen has written a new libretto for the production, which employs a stripped-down stage setting in a nod to the minimalist aesthetics of traditional Cantonese opera but also incorporates a video element for a modern twist.

The Old Man and His Sea will be presented from November 10 to 12 in the auditorium of the Kwai Tsing Theatre.

Also featured at the festival is Bach im Theater: St John Passion, another collaborative work by two Hong Kong talents, choral artist Patrick Chiu and choreographer Ivanhoe Lam. Their production is a reinterpretation of St John Passion, the 18th-century choral masterpiece by Johann Sebastian Bach that tells the story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion.

The piece has been performed around the world over the years, usually as a choral concert but sometimes as an opera. However, Chiu says this new performance will offer something completely different.

Bach im Theater: St John Passion, developed by choral artist Patrick Chiu and choreographer Ivanhoe Lam, offers a fusion of Baroque music and contemporary theatre.

“First, let me just say one thing: this is not an opera,” he notes. “When we started talking about this project, we were very excited and also thought it would be challenging for us, and perhaps the only way to make it our own is to totally reinterpret the approach.”

For their show, Chiu and Lam have fused Baroque music with contemporary theatre, which includes recasting the voice types and dramatic figures as well as incorporating physical movements into the performance.

Bach im Theater: St John Passion was first performed last year in Germany, but as that was still during the Covid-19 pandemic era, the preparation process was chaotic. However, for the show’s run in Hong Kong, the duo have had time to refine their work. For his part, Chiu, who has studied Bach’s music extensively, imagined how the composer might have written St John Passion later on in his life.

“In St Matthew Passion, which he wrote several years after St John, he always paired up the recitatives with the arias, so my first impression was that perhaps a more mature presentation of a passion would be to do the same,” Chiu explains.

The casting includes some unexpected choices, such as giving the role of Jesus to Reginald Mobley, a renowned American countertenor who performed at the coronation of Britain’s King Charles earlier this year.

Chiu says: “People will be so curious, because usually Jesus in St John Passion is a baritone, but we put Mobley in it, and he’s a countertenor. Also, the audience will look for the evangelists – there are no evangelists in this show. We have someone singing the evangelists’ lines, but he is not an evangelist.”

Chiu and Lam have further refined their work on Bach im Theater: St John Passion since its first performance, which took place last year in Germany.

An international cast of performers – hailing from Hong Kong, Germany, Japan and the US – will be dressed in modern-day clothing as they play biblical roles that have existed for millennia. But there is nothing random about these updates – every change has a reason behind it, according to Lam.

“We are trying to find a character that belongs to nowadays, showing how we see a woman nowadays, or how we see a guy nowadays,” he explains. “And the dancer is a breakdancer wearing a hoodie, like he was hiding himself.”

Unlike a traditional concert, in which each performer has their own seat or podium on stage, the musicians in Chiu and Lam’s version of St John Passion will interact with the dancer and soloists.

“There is no hierarchy there,” Lam notes. “No matter your role, even when you are the conductor, you have to face the same thing under the same Bible, or the rules in our life.”

Beyond the contemporary reinterpretations, the mission of the piece remains a quest for the truth, and exploring whether it can still be found in a collection of ancient texts. Lam says: “The Bible has survived thousands of years. So what about life? What about our stories?”

Bach im Theater: St John Passion will be performed on November 18 and 19 in the auditorium of the Kwai Tsing Theatre.

The New Vision Arts Festival 2023 takes place from October 20 to November 19, with live performances presented at various venues across Hong Kong. For the complete schedule and ticketing information, visit nvaf.gov.hk.

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