We can be heroes

Next year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival is a tribute to the people who make it happen on and offstage, writes Robin Lynam

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 October, 2013, 10:40pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 October, 2013, 10:46pm

HONG KONG ARTS FESTIVAL 2014 is all about heroes – and that’s official. “In the characters on stage, in heroic journeys in music, played and sung, and in the creative giants who are heroes of the dance,” says Tisa Ho, executive director of the arts and cultural jamboree. “The ‘hero’ motif is also a tribute to all artists, audiences, partners, stakeholders and those behind the scenes who make the festival possible,” Ho adds.

Some heroic organisation is involved.

Over 33 days, from February 18 to March 22, 1,662 artists and production staff will stage 138 performances in 15 venues – as well as 97 Festival Plus events, such as workshops – with a budget of about HK$102.5 million. Twenty performances will be new works or world premieres, and a further 16 will be Asian premieres.

“The focus the Hong Kong Arts Festival has taken over the years is to collaborate with local artists, and local composers and producers. This way we hope to bring a balance of programmes that will suit the Hong Kong audience and international audience,” says Ronald Arculli, chairman of the Hong Kong Arts Festival Society.

Well, up to a point. Only 35 of those 138 performances are local, and the number of tickets for sale for the international programmes is 102,713, versus 13,317 for local programmes. But that is fair enough.

It’s an excellent thing that local artists have more opportunities for festival exposure – but they are here for the rest of the year.

For the time being, at least, nothing short of the Arts Festival is likely to bring us, say, Finland’s Savonlinna Opera Festival (with the Savonlinna Opera Festival Choir and the Hong Kong Philharmonic) performing Wagner’s Lohengrin.

The opera is heroic in length, scale and theme. This performance lasts for four hours and 15 minutes, and we are warned that it “contains brief smoking scenes”.

Simply shocking.

Does Lohengrin need a prequel?

Judge for yourselves. The Arts Festival has commissioned one from Jeffrey Ching, who has written both the music and the libretto for Before Brabant, based on The Knyght of the Swanne from 1512, which was one of the many sources of Lohengrin.

Both of these productions mark the 2013 bicentenary of Wagner’s birth – but his is not the only anniversary being celebrated.

Shakespeare’s 450th birthday is marked by several productions, of which the most interesting is perhaps the Bristol Old Vic’s collaboration with the South African Handspring Puppet Company on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Tom Morris.

This is the team behind the international hit production, War Horse.

Those anxious about the brief smoking scenes in Lohengrin should be aware that this production – in English with Chinese surtitles – contains “nudity, adult content and smoke effect”. We are getting a sense there might be a sub-theme to next year’s festival – and it is not an anniversary celebration.

Also honouring Shakespeare is the National Theatre of China in a coproduction with the National Theatre company of Korea, performing Romeo and Juliet in Putonghua. There are Chinese and English surtitles, but you know the story anyway.

Poland’s Nowy Theatre presents African Tales by Shakespeare, directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski and “based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, The Merchant of Venice and J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime”.

More smoke and nudity here, and “scenes that some audiences may find disturbing”.

It is performed in Polish, with English and Chinese surtitles.

August Strindberg’s Miss Julie also gets moved to Africa, this time by the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town, which is giving Mies Julie its Asian premiere. “Explicit sexual scenes, parental guidance is advised”. Well, you have been warned.

Smoking scenes (again) in FILTH – the famous “Failed In London, Try Hong Kong” acronym beloved of people who can’t understand why anybody would want to live anywhere other than a city with high tax, rotten public services, and thoroughly miserable weather.

Written by Hong Kong-born Young Jingan – who went to London and graduated from the Royal Court Theatre’s Young Writers programme – FILTH is directed by Peter Jordan. In English with Chinese surtitles, it is set in 2007 and looks at expatriate life here. It is also notable as the first English language play commissioned by the Arts Festival. There are smoking scenes again, I’m afraid.

A broad range of dance productions includes the modern folk dance of Russia’s Igor Moiseyev State Academic Ensemble of Popular Dance (“smoke and flame effects”), and the La Scala Ballet’s Giselle, which doesn’t need any pyrotechnics.

There’s so much more. The festival also has a strong Nordic component, and concludes with an epic concert featuring more than 160 performers. Conducted by Jari Hamalainen with the Savonlinna Opera Festival Choir, the Hong Kong Philharmonic and an international cast of soloists, perform Wagner, Verdi, Leoncavallo, Giordano and Boito.

For tickets and information, go to As Hong Kong Arts Festival programme director Grace Lang puts it: “‘Better three hours too soon than aminute too late’– a quote from Shakespeare. I hope you will book your seats now.”

Advance booking has started and counter booking begins on December 7.