Spinning out the magic
Those who know theatre director Tang Shu-wing and his work may register surprise at his directorial debut in a mainstream stage production: is he the right choice for the job? Well known for his offbeat and, at times, obscure theatre style and language, the respected and innovative 37-year-old artist recently accepted the chance to direct Springtime Production's latest stage extravaganza.
Based on award-winning playwright Raymond To Kwok-wai's work of the same title, The Magic Is The Moonlight promises an evening of entertainment with plenty of romance, laughter and tears.
The all-star cast including Tse Kwan-ho, Cecilia Yip Tung and Lo Koon-lan also guarantee box-office success.
In other words, this is hardly the kind of popular theatre one associates with Tang, who is also the artistic director of his own stage company No Man's Land.
Weeks before the show's first performance on August 16, an actor said: 'I don't know whether [Tang] is taking a commercial or artistic approach towards this production.
'If he's compromising the two he's also compromising the artistic standard of the actors.' Tang frankly admits The Magic Is The Moonlight is sheer entertainment and his job is neither to create a special theatre language for the audience nor convey thought-provoking messages as he does in his own productions.
'The intention is to stage a conventional theatrical work and to do our best to give the audience a memorable evening,' he says.
'It is entertainment in the sense that actors' perceptions of the production are very close to those of the audience.' Since most of his cast are professionally trained theatre actors and students who hold high artistic standards, have there been compromises between these 'standards' and blatant commercialism? 'Yes,' Tang says. 'But we can always talk things out.' The same applies when there are differences in opinions between the director, artistic director To, and the actors.
He says: 'We'll discuss our views and come to a consensus. This isn't a major problem.' Tang landed himself the director's job after To approached him to participate in the production last year. The two met several years ago and had always wanted to collaborate.
'Raymond saw me in Deathtrap [in 1994] and other productions I staged at the time and I think he liked my work. Even then he said he would like to work with me but nothing came of it until this year,' he says.
In fact, the challenges faced by Tang, who returned to Hong Kong in 1993 after having studied and worked in Paris for five years, are more to do with getting the mood, tempo and flow of the production right.
'Commercial theatre is similar to conventional theatre and there are methods to direct [mainstream] productions,' Tang points out. 'The director's task is to create a theatrical feel or mood on stage, as preconceived or set out in the original script. These concepts will then be realised in the story.
'But it is tough to create a mood in one scene, quickly change it in the next scene and then the next, while trying to keep the tempo and rhythm of the entire drama going smoothly.' To achieve the mood of individual scenes, Tang says he has to ensure the movements on stage and the actors' energy and emotions complement and not contradict each other.
'Whether you have a small or, in this case, a big and mixed cast, the method and intention of directing are the same,' Tang says.
'Since this production does not have a specific theatrical language, my job is to build up different imageries that speak something.
'If the characters are created by the playwright, the director is to bring these characters alive.
'To be able to do that is already very good.' Set between 1937 and 1947, The Magic Is The Moonlight is an old-style love story revolving around Wen Zhong (played by Tse), Tu Yun (Lo) and Dan Lei (Yip).
Wen and Tu fall in love during a brief encounter under a bridge in wartime Shanghai. However, due to a power failure, the two never had a good look at each other's face before going their separate ways.
Ten years on, the lovers cross paths again but fail to recognise one another. Wen is now a soldier and Tu a nightclub hostess and their relationship is further complicated when Dan appears and falls in love with Wen.
Tang says he has tried to add his own feelings and interpretations to the drama to give it a greater dimension: 'Is falling in love full of compromises? Is it hard to express one's love? Is there love at first sight and is it a reality or myth? 'Also, I want to highlight how the turbulent 10 years have affected people in the mainland. I therefore built on the story and put in my own feelings,' he says.
'Given the drama is already very complete, it has very little room for more new concepts so I just want to make a few small statements.
'However, these new concepts will, I hope, broaden the dimensions of the play.' For instance, Yip's character Dan will stay behind in Shanghai while Wen and Tu leave the city and head for Hong Kong under the bridge where they first met.
'The bridge is very symbolic. In the finale everyone will be standing on the bridge and some mainland military tunes and patriotic songs will be played,' Tang says.
'But these are tunes from after 1947 like Three Principles And Eight Guidelines and Dong Fong Hung so I want the audience to imagine what lies ahead for these characters in China in the coming years.' Another 'challenge' Tang has faced during the month-long rehearsal is directing the actors. There are 31 and all have a different background and training.
'Both Tse Kwan-ho and Lo Koon-lan are very experienced in acting on stage so they quickly grasped the methods of acting in this production,' he says.
'I'll give them an idea and tempo of the scene and then leave them to express themselves in their own ways. Should our opinions differ then we will discuss and work out the best one we all agree on.
'Raymond To has been good in helping out. He gives me a lot of freedom [in my job] and I really appreciate his confidence in me.' However, there are some actors who need further coaching but he has little time for it.
'This is not a school,' he says. Despite the very mixed cast, Tang says he is satisfied with the actors.
'Actors come from different backgrounds with different expectations. Sometimes it is hard to change their preconceptions in a short time and we need to work out the differences together,' he says.
'I rather positively bring out the best of this mix than to highlight their contradictions.' Will Tang take on another mainstream stage production in the future? The diminutive lawyer-turned actor is not sure.
'I'll go to America next year to study the art of directing first,' he says.
'But if given a chance in the future, I would consider [directing another commercial theatrical production].
'However, my priority lies with my own theatre and work.'