Theatre Review: Roads to Chicken Pie (Hong Kong Repertory Theatre)
Lau Wing’s new play, Roads to Chicken Pie, is currently running at the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre Blackbox. It is quite refreshing to see such a highly British-toned production of a dystopian-themed play with craft, but can be much more edgy in presentation.
Miss Lau’s play does gives a strong vibe of George Orwell’s literature, creating a dystopia, and through that to tell a story about brainwashing of commoners by the authority. Roads to Chicken Pie has all the elements of this genre covered through a world where chickens are developed into human form as well as having a human brain.
They are bred and raised by humans with discipline, physically trained to be fit, only to serve the purpose of being eaten. These chickens conceive this idea as their ultimate purpose of life, and they are proud to be killed and eaten by humans. They are highly intelligent, studying a vast canon of philosophy, but also very naïve at the same time, since they know nothing about the real world outside.
Eventually, one chicken who coded ‘0926’ is enlightened, and wants to escape the Academy, the place where the chickens are trained as a ‘perfect’ chicken-to-eat, to seek an alternative outcome, other than to submit to her fate of being consumed.
Of course, one can draw a lot of references and comparisons between Roads to Chicken Pie and the current political situations in any country. In fact, Miss Lau’s writing gives quite an obvious comparison between the world in Chicken Pie and the relationship between Hong Kong and China, with indications of where the Academy is situated, where does 0926 have to walk to get to the border, and how 0926 has to gain an identity for crossing the border.
All these indications just totally ring a bell to Hong Kong people who some are currently quite lost in their own identity of whether they are Chinese or Hong Kongers, or both, or neither.
I do feel that some of the lines are too blatantly written, too obvious to talk about the themes of dystopia with repetition. However, I like how Miss Lau structures her play, so that the audience are more detached from the story being told instead of just rooting for 0926 and her road to freedom.
The lack of subtlety in the writing is not so much of a problem to me (even though it can be more subtle), but that is due to the fact that, as the story unfolds, 0926 is not the main focus of the play but more of a device to illustrate the characters around her.
The original Chinese title of Roads to Chicken Pie is directly translated as A Chicken Pie Named Desire, a straight parody to Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Names Desire. Here is why I think this title is important to be discussed. It is because if you recall the structure of Streetcar, you will find that Chicken Pie has a similar one to Williams’s masterpiece. Not directly as a carbon copy, but both plays do echo each other.
When 0926 escapes from the Academy, she encounters the chef of a chicken pie restaurant. The audience has already seen the chef in the first scene before this, as he invites a lady to his restaurant to consume a chicken pie. Before the lady eats the chicken pie, she is arranged to talk to the chicken who is going to be killed for the food. After that, the lady and the chef hit off as a couple.
This is very important, as 0926, in female human form, later encounters the chef, and the chef invites her to stay in his house as his girlfriend. The lady finds out and confronts 0926, but since 0926 is a chicken who is naïve, the exchange between her and the lady makes the lady frustrated. She eventually hurts the relationship between 0926 and the chef.
If I dare to compare Chicken Pie to Streetcar, 0926 would be the same archetype to Blanche, the chef to Stanley, and the lady to Stella. In Streetcar, Blanche, a southern belle who is light-headed, is the character who eventually changes the dynamics between Stanley and Stella. Similar to that, 0926, a chicken who has no survival skills in the real world, is the character that changes the dynamics between the lady and the chef, even though they are not truly a couple.
Later in Chicken Pie, the lady actually helps 0926 for her escape, and that is the point where the lady is having doubts on why she is sympathising, or even empathizing a chicken. At the end, 0926 fails to escape. Everything is too late, just like Stella at the end is too late to save her sister.
And if this comparison is credible, then Roads to Chicken Pie is not a story about 0926, but a story about the lady and the chef, and Miss Lau’s structuring proves that this conclusion is sensible. I especially love that Miss Lau includes a scene where the lady, the chef, and the teacher argue about the treatment of 0926 after she is taken back to the Academy.
Similar to the last scene of Miss Julie with the argument between Julie, Jean and Christine, this scene in Chicken Pie clearly illustrates the stances of these three characters about the incident. It is this scene that really pulls the play to another dimension of looking at the emotional complexity of the authorities and consumers, who have the right to decide whether a chicken should be killed or not according to their own needs.
To my knowledge, most of the plays, films and literature of this genre do not usually explore this phase of their stories, but Chicken Pie uses most of its content to look at the authorities instead of the oppressed, and I love that Miss Lau does not put a foot on either side. She just coldly illustrates the situation, and let the audience to think about the problem.
The production is charming with a British vibe, but the direction is too semantic to my taste. Directed by Sam Tang, the production looks like something that would be produced by Menier Chocolate Factory or Southwark Playhouse in London. It is delicately crafted and strongly directed, with a set designed by Vanessa Suen, slightly Jan-Versweyveld-influenced from Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge, and spectacular lighting designed by Mousey Tse.
What it lacks is a bold vision for this piece. This vibrant new play seems to be caged under a conservative staging. After all, it is a blackbox production by a young director. I do expect some edges.
This also affects the performances. The acting ensemble is adequately supportive to the material, but I do think it can be improved with a more grounded approach. I have to applaud to Ivy Pang and Raymond Wan though, as the lady and the teacher respectively, for their comparatively outstanding performances. The whole acting department just needs a boost to make the material much more alive.
Still, Roads to Chicken Pie is an enjoyable play to see for a broader provocation on this everlasting topic about humans eating humans.
Roads to Chicken Pie at Hong Kong Repertory Theatre Blackbox
Performed in Cantonese
Through 23rd January 2017