Run, don't hide

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 October, 2011, 12:00am


No one could accuse Giles Burton of playing it safe. Not content with bringing to Hong Kong's unsuspecting stages a rap version of The Canterbury Tales and a play about Adolf Hitler that's as critical of the audience as it is of the protagonist, his next project is a one-woman show - and the woman is naked.

The play is Human Fruit Bowl, and it's fairly representative of the sort of work that appeals to Burton's theatre company, Microfest. Launched in 2009 with a festival of small, independent productions, Microfest is Hong Kong's most boundary-pushing company, specialising in new, thought-provoking, often genre-defying works imported from overseas, plus equally innovative productions Burton directs.

He launched Microfest with a bang 'because I wanted to create a buzz about it. Bringing in individual shows is great, but one of the really good things about a festival is that you can see several plays in the same day. It's an opportunity to see how much variance and diversity you can create,' he says.

It's a tricky one to pull off, trying to convince Hong Kong's theatre-goers that small, independent, intentionally minimalist shows can be of professional standard - particularly in a city where there's a fair bit of am-dram masquerading as professional theatre. 'It's a problem,' Burton acknowledges, 'but only until people see the work. In Hong Kong, there's sometimes an attitude that bigger is better, that if you spend more money it's better. So we need to produce shows that will grab people's attention and make them think.'

Born in Britain, Burton has lived in Hong Kong for five years, moving to the city when his wife, who's also involved with Microfest as a producer, was offered a teaching job here. He has decades of theatrical experience, working in technical roles and as a stage manager before progressing to directing, mostly in British repertory theatre.

Burton says his multifaceted background is one of the reasons he can put on small shows, because it means he can work with a small crew. The only theatrical role he hasn't filled regularly is that of actor. 'I've tried it, but I don't enjoy it - and I'm not very good at it.'

He has also been steeped in festivals for much of his career, and co-founded the Prague Fringe Festival after working for 10 years for the Edinburgh Festivals. When he moved to Hong Kong, he spotted a gap in the market. 'I was seeing all these great small-scale shows at these festivals, but there was nothing like that in Hong Kong.'

And so Microfest was born, initially as the 2009 festival of four startling plays, including The Rap Canterbury Tales and Adolf. However, Human Fruit Bowl pushes things a stage further. Starring its co-creator, Harmony Stempel, the play debuted in New York, then moved to the Prague Fringe and then the Amsterdam Fringe Festival after judges in Amsterdam voted it the best show at Prague, under a deal between the two organisers.

'It's something very different from what you usually see on a stage, and for me, the best plays are the opposite to what you expect,' Burton says. 'It has three layers: it's about a woman who starts working as an artists' model, and she's dealing with a relationship herself, and she's also interested in the artist-model relationship, and she starts researching that relationship throughout history. Most plays are active; in this one she's modelling, so there's no movement, which could be boring, but it's actually very gripping. I don't think many people in Hong Kong would do a play like this: it's almost anti-directed - although it's actually very subtly directed.'

There is, of course, another reason why not many people in Hong Kong would do a play like this: the nudity. 'When we talked in Prague about putting it on here, we weren't sure if Hong Kong was ready.' Plus, he says, 'the legal status is very dubious - no one has been able to tell us if it's legal or not'.

He even quietly consulted some police officers, whose consensus seemed to be that there wouldn't be a problem - so long as no one objected. That, Burton jokes, creates its own issues, 'because we're having to plaster the publicity material with references to nudity, so no one will come along who might be offended, but with all the emphasis on nudity, we're worried we might attract people for the wrong reasons'.

Fortunately for its prospects of avoiding an inappropriately motivated crowd, the play is being staged at the Fringe Club in Central rather than, say, the Arts Centre in Wan Chai.

'It's fascinating,' he says. 'After about five minutes you forget she's naked. But people have different reactions to and expectations of live theatre compared to film or TV. People accept violence on TV, for example, but in theatre they just wonder how it's being done.'

Burton is no stranger to controversy, with particularly strong reactions provoked, he says, by Adolf. 'It's a fantastic portrayal. It shocks and offends you, but there's a twist to it that makes you test your own attitude towards racism.'

The play's success created some unusual opportunities. 'We were approached by someone in Canada, and asked if we could perform it at a 1,000-seater venue there. He turned out to be the cantor of a big synagogue. I said, 'You do know our backdrop is a massive swastika?''

Burton hopes to put on another festival next year, but funding is an issue. Despite having to 'become an expert in really hammering costs down', his productions 'make a very small profit'; the company supplements its income with workshops for both incoming performers and corporate clients.

The main problem, he says, is a shortage of suitable venues. 'The Fringe holds 100, the Shouson Theatre [at the Arts Centre] holds 450. We could bring a lot more shows here if there were a 200-seater venue. At the moment we can't bring in a show with, say, five actors - it might be a great show, but we can't afford to fly them all in.' It doesn't help, he adds, that most venues demand a flat fee, rather than share the risk with a split of ticket sales.

This means both companies and private individuals are reluctant to support productions financially. 'People are interested if you could finance it in a profitable way, if you could run shows for long enough to make a living, but you're restricted to five-day runs.'

The inadequacy of Hong Kong's venues was brought home when Burton tried to put on comedians after the 2009 Microfest, which took place at the Arts Centre's McAulay Studio. 'It didn't really work,' he says. 'You can't drink there - and who wants to see a comedian when they can't drink?'