Act two for Hong Kong's nascent theatre culture

Nicole Garbellini says Hong Kong's theatre scene is livening up, not just with overseas productions but also local stories bridging East and West

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 May, 2014, 10:18pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 May, 2014, 1:54am

All the world's a stage," wrote William Shakespeare, whose 450th birth anniversary was celebrated last month. That may well be, but an evening at the theatre is still a rare night out for most Hong Kong people.

On the face of it, this seems curious, given that Hong Kong's competitors in the "world city" category - London, New York and Paris, for example - have well-established theatre cultures. Theatre is hugely varied: from musical extravaganzas to repertory performances, modern comedies to classical tragedies. It has the diversity to appeal to a wider range of audiences than perhaps any other form of cultural entertainment.

But things are getting better. Hong Kong does get a few productions from, mostly, London each year for short runs; a Broadway show or two; and, by all accounts, Cantonese theatre has had a number of successes. Local English-language theatre has also been growing and improving. Just a few years ago, the number of local productions could have been counted on the fingers of both hands. Now, every month will see a couple, if not more, openings. For the first time, there's usually something on. And new things, too. Just this month, there was a series of outdoor resettings of Shakespeare at Cyberport. "Shakespeare In The Port" was an experiment, but it worked. I'm sure it will be repeated.

Building on these still modest successes requires an understanding of where this improvement comes from: Hong Kong now has several small theatre companies, which provide local actors - a growing number of whom are ethnically Chinese - with opportunities to perform. As a group, we often act in or direct each other's performances. We even have our own awards ceremony.

Successful incubation of theatre is complex: there are many chicken-and-egg situations. Theatre companies need audiences, but audiences need to develop a theatre habit, and for that they need a variety of companies and productions. Both companies and audiences need theatres, which need audiences to fill them.

Theatre must also be both local and international: audiences want blockbusters from overseas as well as new plays with local relevance, and so Hong Kong needs English-language theatre just like it needs English-language films and television.

An important development is to put on more locally written plays that speak to audiences directly from and about the city in which they live. A year ago, we began an experiment of adapting classic stories and resetting them in more or less contemporary Hong Kong. Last year, we premiered Duetto, one-act comedies taken from Italian comic operas. Our next production, Don Yuan, resets the Don Juan story as a modern comedy in Greater China.

Since these are based on well-known European classics, the local national communities have been instrumental in helping us build bridges between European culture and local audiences.

But finding theatre space is always hard. Here's hoping that the designers and future operators of the West Kowloon Cultural District will cater for local productions as well as international blockbusters. Hong Kong needs both.

Nicole Garbellini runs the Aurora Theatre Company. Don Yuan will be at the Fringe Club from June 4-7