ACADEMY OF LAUGHTER
Jan Lamb Hoi-fung and Eric Kot Man-fai may have signed on to headline a 17-performance run of Academy of Laughter but few people — least of all director Rensen Chan Man-kong — can guarantee that it will go on beyond its August 1 premiere.
While this latest Cantonese production was licensed on condition of strict coherence to Japanese playwright Koki Mitani's original script, Lamb and Kot are long celebrated for their outlandish, improvisatory approach to comedy. Although they've been influential figures in Hong Kong pop culture since the late 1980s, the two are making their acting debut in a traditional theatre setting.
"We're used to having our ways through and through," says Kot. "To work under others' permission and to follow the script is madness. I think one of our biggest challenges after having done everything from movies to television to radio is that …"
Lamb interjects: "It's like we are only starting now."
When we meet for this interview in The Nonsensemakers' rehearsal studio, every mention that these radio hosts, stand-up comedians and members of the popular Canto-rap duo Softhard can stick to the script becomes part of a running joke that keeps on giving. "We can't say for certain that we'll follow the script before we've done our first show," Lamb says.
Kot chimes in: "It's possible that we'll make history by being shut down after the first performance. The theatre doors will be sealed with giant notices and the ticket holders will be asking, 'What can we do with our tickets now, Mr Chan?' [Director Chan] Man-kong will be busy counting the coins and making refunds."
Chan can afford to laugh along to his actors' unrelenting tomfoolery. Since its premiere in July 2009, Chan has performed in all five of his company's previous adaptations of the two-man play, which were all titled University of Laughs and directed by co-star Desmond Tang Wai-kit.
The production marks the first time Chan takes the director's seat for the play. As the artistic director of The Nonsensemakers since 2007, he is at once benefiting from Softhard's lofty stature and feeling sentimental about what might have been in the past few years.
"This is the first time we have a production that sold out in minutes and we don't need to worry about the box office at all," he says. "This also makes me wonder why our past productions hadn't encountered a similar reception. And why don't the audiences just choose their favourite subject matters to watch instead of following the stars?"
Wistful introspection aside, Chan acknowledges that he's obliged to incorporate the qualities of Lamb and Kot into the two protagonists, both of which he has played. Set in 1940s Japan when the country was on the brink of war, Academy of Laughter revolves around the persistent attempts of a young playwright to get his comedy script past a hard-nosed government censor.
Both Kot and Lamb were drawn to the play's narrative framework, which the former describes as "a cage fight", and the latter compares to such chamber pieces as the courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men and Mitani's The Show Must Go On.
Long-term followers of Softhard will remember their hilarious radio game show all those years ago, for which Kot adopted a "soft" persona in assisting the contestants and Lamb took a "hard" line on them. But while Kot is taking up the presumably "soft" part as the writer this time, and Lamb the "hard" one as the censor, both stress it's a coincidence.
"In fact, it's only after we'd decided the parts that I realised my character is 10 years younger than Jan's," says Kot, the scruffier looking of the duo.
"And I thought, oh snap, our appearances are against our parts so we have to overcome that difference with acting skills."
When I ask Chan about the difference between working with these two big kids and with veteran theatre actors, the director doesn't even get a chance to speak. "Every day is a new beginning — because we have to start from scratch every time," says Lamb. To which Kot, in his trademark nonsensical way, replies: "I want to eat abalone today."
Shouson Theatre, Hong Kong Arts Centre, 2 Harbour Road, Wan Chai, August 1-2, 5-9, 12-13, 15-16, 8pm, August 2-3, 9-10, 16-17, 3pm. In Cantonese. HK$380-HK$580 Urbtix. Inquiries: 9612 7547