A fantastical play blends the literary and dramatic influences of both east and west, writes Yenni Kwok
After its lauded production of Scottish playwright David Harrower's controversial and intense Blackbird last year, it would be tempting for Theatre du Pif to stage another acclaimed script.
'But we prefer to do something different,' says Sean Curran, who co-founded the company with Bonni Chan Lai-chu in 1992.
'We want to work on something of our own.'
Hanako's Pillow is exactly that: in the same vein as Dance Me to the End of Love, a drama inspired by Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen's music and German writer Hermann Hesse's classic Siddhartha, this new production is also original as well as a fusion of eastern and western theatre aesthetics and will be staged at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre this weekend.
Created jointly by Theatre du Pif and Australian stage director Robert Draffin, Hanako's Pillow is essentially a ghost story revolving around a mysterious woman living deep in the forest. Rumoured to be a witch, she has in the past attracted several ambitious men all keen to kill her, but none has returned. One day, a wounded warrior arrives at her door and stays over. Unknowing to him, he sleeps on her magical pillow, which allows his dream to become intertwined with hers.
'We are fascinated with ghosts, witches and warriors,' says Draffin. 'What will happen if a witch and a warrior meet? Is he seeking healing and love, or is he going to kill her?'
The seeds of this fantastical tale were sown in February when Curran and Chan flew to Melbourne to work on an idea for a theatrical performance. The writing continued in June when Draffin came to Hong Kong. 'It is an organic process,' he says. 'Between the logos - what is obvious and tangible or known - and the mythos - what is mysterious and hidden or unknown - the spirit of this duality and its conversation gives rise to inspiration.'
One major influence of the story is Kwaidan, a collection of traditional Japanese ghost stories compiled by Lafcadio Hearn, an American, in 1904. Dating back to Japan's Edo period (1603-1867) these were originally Buddhist stories, aimed at teaching moral lessons about human deeds and karma.
The three also draw ideas from Kantan, a 14th-century tale in the Noh style of classic Japanese musical drama, about a young man who falls asleep on a magic pillow and dreams about the emptiness of worldly glory. Some people attribute the drama to Noh master Zeami Motokiyo, but the tale itself was originally a Chinese folk story.
Another source is David Henry Hwang's The Sound of a Voice, about a middle-aged couple living in an isolated house, also inspired by Japanese ghost stories. Japanese love poems, and the work of late British poet laureate Ted Hughes and Chinese poet Li Bai also influenced the script.
Like all good, old-fashioned stories, there is a twist. 'In our story it becomes apparent all is not what it seems at the beginning,' Draffin says. 'As the story unfolds, we dive deeper into the murkier realm between the living and the dead, to discover what will allow a tormented soul to depart the imprisonment of being a ghost. And also what can allow the torment to stop and an opening to appear. It has something to do with the mingled dreams of the dew of a flower and the tears of a sword.'
If images of a flower and a sword sound like Freudian symbols, that is the case.
'They are sexual metaphors,' Draffin says. 'The two main characters are two powerful figures. And there is a strong sexual attraction between the two.'
The Australian director, who has travelled widely to study and observe Asian performance arts, from Peking opera and Javanese wayang wong (dance-drama) to the Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam, brings elements of Asian theatre, especially Noh, to Hanako's Pillow.
Theatre du Pif persuaded some of the best theatrical talents to work on the project. Draffin, who was here last year to give a workshop at the Cattle Depot Artist Village, is a co-founder of Melbourne's Liminal Theatre and Performance, dedicated to collaborations with Asian artists. South Korea's Lee Yun-soo, who created the set for Yohangza Theatre Group's A Midsummer Night's Dream, is in charge of stage design.
Folk tales, ghost stories and the like seem mere fantasy, with little relevance to life. But the story has contemporary resonance, touching on the issues of war and peace, human relationship and sexism.
'It is universal that witches live outside society because they don't need men,' Draffin says. 'We tend to be afraid of them, and they have been persecuted in many cultures. We are also obsessed with warriors as they have extraordinary skills that can control life and death.'
'Both characters are fighters,' says Curran, who has taken kendo lessons for his stage role. 'But the warrior is really a man of war. He has killed so many people. With so much war and genocide in the world, we hope the play will raise questions about anger and revenge in our society.'
Hanako's Pillow, July 10-11, 8pm; July 12, 3pm and 8pm; July 13, 5pm, Studio Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, HK$120 and HK$180. Inquiries: 2268 7323