Home truths: playwright Edward Lam's latest offering is a real family affair
After a streak of star-driven, but cerebral productions, theatre veteran Edward Lam’s latest work is a family drama, writes Edmund Lee
WHEN EDWARD LAM Yick-wah looked for four performers to take part in a project commissioned by Taiwan's Eslite Bookstore in 2005, more than a dozen actors answered the call. "I didn't want to turn them away," the playwright and theatre director says, "so I took them all in". Presented at the Tunnan branch of Eslite, Shopping etc - a Play about Modern Love was an experimental theatre piece that examined urban relationships through the German philosopher Walter Benjamin's ideas on capitalism.
Perhaps more significantly, that small-scale production marked the start of an extended period in which Lam opted to cast predominantly Taiwanese actors in his productions. This development was partly a consequence of his frustration with what he saw as the uninspiring drama education system of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, the dominant school for thespians in the city.
Nine years on, little appears to have changed when it comes to his casting choices. But the sudden departure of long-time collaborator Ewing Chan Yau-wing, who died of acute leukaemia earlier this month, means that Lam has lost the treasured set designer he had worked with since 2006's Madame Bovary Is Me.
Hsieh Ying-hsun - the popular Taiwanese theatre actress who has worked with Lam many times since their first collaboration on Shopping etc - takes the lead role in his latest work, I Hate Therefore I Marry. She plays the eldest of four sisters in a broken family, whose patriarch walked out on them, never to be heard from again. Patty Chu, Joanne Deng and Rebecca Yip complete the sibling ensemble, each of whom have their own emotional issues.
"The topic of the play is not just about 'leftover women' looking to get married," says Lam. "Our scope is much wider. We're considering the reasons that girls would want to leave their family. Daughters have a complex relationship with their family and, in particular, their mother. In Chinese families, it is unfortunate that hatred, rather than love, binds people together."
By Lam's account, 90 per cent of the cast of his new Putonghua production is made up of Taiwanese actors, although he adds that "there are as yet no touring schedules planned for either Taiwan or the mainland". This is an anomaly for Lam, who is known for blockbuster shows such as Awakening (2011), the Denise Ho Wan-sze-starring musical that just concluded a 109-performance run in Taipei in December.
"This is like a test-tube baby," says the director of his new drama. "It is quite a different production from what I've done before, because I'm quite a rebellious person at heart. When I look back at my past work, I sometimes criticise myself for how clueless I was as a theatre director. I want to better articulate my views on modern drama - not just in terms of its form, but the different psychological states of people in this era."
Lam's latest work is his first since Shopping etc that is neither a star vehicle (comedian Jim Chim Sui-man, film actresses Sylvia Chang Ai-chia, Angelica Lee Sin-je and Rene Liu Ruo-ying have appeared in previous projects), nor a modern reinterpretation of a literary classic, many of which he has tackled in the past, including Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary and the Chinese classical novels Water Margin, Journey to the West and Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Written as a form of self-exploration amid family conflicts, and primarily centring on the themes of marriage and hatred, I Hate Therefore I Marry does at least find a bit of continuity in the snappy writing of Wong Wing-sze, the emerging Hong Kong playwright who also scripted Lam's Awakening (2011) and What is Success? (2013).
"Wong Wing-sze is both very Hong Kong and not-Hong Kong in terms of her sensitivities," says Lam. "Personally, I don't like many parts of Hong Kong culture: I don't like Stephen Chow; I don't like TVB dramas; I don't read Apple Daily. I don't like the ideologies they propagate. Wong is interesting in that she knows all these things, while at the same time sharing the insight with me on how these things became the way they are."
After stating that he couldn't see himself ever collaborating with Candace Chong Mui-ngam or other playwrights, whose writing he considers "too academic to feel human", the director raves about Wong's readiness to take risks in exploring touchy subjects. "Ah Sze has a dark side that other people do not," he says of Wong, who is renowned for her wicked sense of humour.
"I think if [a writer] has no sense of guilt or anything like that, he wouldn't be interesting. It's not that I don't like Hong Kong culture but, let's say, I think it could be so much more than what it is - people are being too nice to themselves, and so whatever subjects they tackle they're not going to get into any depth. By contrast, from the several collaborations I've had with Ah Sze, I get the feeling that her work is not just about feeling good or being sentimental."
For his part, Lam hasn't given up hope of returning to Cantonese theatre, insisting that he'll eventually work on a more comprehensive adaptation of Dream of the Red Chamber to complete his Four Great Classics series. Awakening, which was more of a single-character study, apparently doesn't count in the director's mind.
Despite Lam's preference for eschewing stars from his two most recent productions, a signature play of his, 2008's Design for Living, is about to be revived with a star-studded screen adaptation.
To be directed by Johnnie To Kei-fung from a modified script by Sylvia Chang, the film looks set to boast a cast that includes Chow Yun-fat, Eason Chan Yik-shun, Tang Wei, and Chang, reprising the role she played in the stage production.
Is Lam excited about the film? "I don't feel that the movie is related to me. A play is a play," he says coldly. "At the end of the day, I don't think the two productions are related. I mean, even the script for the stage version was written by Sylvia [and not by me]. I'm only the seed [of the work]."
On that point, maybe even Walter Benjamin - who famously questioned the purpose of reproducing great artistic works - would agree.
I Hate Therefore I Marry, Kwai Tsing Theatre Auditorium, 12 Hing Ning Road, Kwai Chung, January 24 and 25, 7.45pm, January 25 and 26, 2.30pm. In Putonghua with Chinese surtitles. HK$120-HK$420 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2893 8732