Theatre Review: Wither on the Vine (ThreeWoods Playwright)
Something absolutely terrific is happening right now at Tai Lam Interchange Tunnel Farm in Hong Kong, as a heritage theatre is finally conceived in a rightful way that really speaks with a volume of aftertaste.
ThreeWoods Playwright‘s production of Wither on the Vine, a piece on looking at the people in Guangzhou, China, back in 1950s during the Land Reform period, is probably the best environmental heritage theatre I have ever seen in Hong Kong.
To my knowledge, heritage theatre in Hong Kong is still in a sprouting period. There has been several museum theatre productions done in the city to serve as educational dramas on local heritage, but those were much more focusing on historical facts delivery instead of using more pathos to let the audience have an experience of that period spoken.
There is also still an argument on whether an environmental theatre piece is an immersive piece, and though I have my own definition on the term ‘immersive theatre’ (as I have mentioned in my recent review on Secret Theatre), the execution of an immersive piece can be varied to suit the purpose of the specific production.
In short, no matter how you define it, it is just a matter of whether it works or not.
Conceived and directed by Cathy Lam, Wither on the Vine is obviously clear about its sole purpose of the production: a heritage theatre for the audience to know about the history back in Guangzhou sixty years ago as well as the stories of the people in it. Based on that, and with the piece played out in a farm does make the audience emote with spectacles.
The piece, done in promenade form, consists five parts and a prologue. From the physical short piece in the prologue, coached by Mimi Lo and accompanied with live music by street folk musical ensemble Coelacanth, we can see that the piece is trying to invite the audience to feel the history instead of knowing the history.
The audience is then guided by a tour guide, assuming that he is sort of supervised by the Communist Party back in the period yet it is ambiguous, to walk to different spots and see the five parts of performances.
It includes a teenage girl burying twelve urns of her family, while another actress being the girl’s voice performs a long monologue on her experience during the Land Reform; a couple arguing about whether they should give up the steels they have to the Party; a man smoking and writing ‘big-character posters’ while he is delivering his own account; another man is trying to move the furnitures in his house again and again, and eventually needs to get out by attempting to kill the smoking man; a video shown through an old style television of a man interviewed about eating the landlords and their babies during the period; and at the end, a story about a widow told by the whole acting ensemble under a tree.
This collage of individual scenes serves a great impact to the audience on the lives during the Land Reform period. None of these are lighthearted. They are all heavy set pieces that really makes the audience think of the situations they are witnessing.
Miss Lam cleverly transits the parts with different elements of having the audience experiencing the atmosphere of that period in between the scenes. The folklores and Party songs sung in the period, as well as the acting ensemble reenacting the group march done back then in front of the audience really suggests them to have a break from analysis.
On the other hand, Chairman Mao’s words recited in between scenes also gives the audience a platform to witness, and more importantly to feel the micro-history just witnessed through the macro-history now performed. The use of sound and voice-overs, amplified through speakers in a public space enlarges the vision of telling history in different theatrical forms, and it works stylishly well.
The acting ensemble is masterful to support the piece. You can see the energy is cohesive. An intact spirit is among the actors. The thoughtful staging is delivered by them in a way that it is just a well-made theatre piece done under an artistic backdrop of nature. They really invites the audience to see the heavy history of China with honest prospects.
But most importantly, as a heritage theatre piece, it does not force feed information to the audience rather than having a glimpse of the lives of the these people. The five parts, even including the video with Andy Ng’s special performance in it, is done in a way with great substances.
With the scenography that speaks gravity, as well as the costumes designed just for a feeling of the period’s colour tone instead of replicating the fashion, the scenes are solid character pieces that makes the audience to listen and process without being too immersed. And as the piece goes on, with such a delicate structure, it drives the audience into the heavy-heart adventure with different engaging elements.
I particularly invest to the ambiguity of the period the audience is set, as well as the role of the audience. Without telling us the actual setting of the farm, the actual purpose of the tour, the audience seems to be in the present looking back to the representations of the people back in the 50s, and it does give a Brechtian treatment on the subject we are examining.
We are asking questions during the walk, yet we can feel the atmosphere in the meantime; we can feel that the history is really happening before our eyes, but we also know that we are analysing the situations of the history, and after the show, when I leave the farm, I really would like to know more about the actual cases during that dark period. And when this happens, it proves that this piece is a success.
Wither on the Vine at Tai Lam Interchange Tunnel Farm
Performed in Cantonese
Through 11th December 2016