Rooms for philosophical improvement

Hiram To

BILLED as 'a city myth in an ever-changing Chinese society', Hong Kong Repertory Theatre's production of Red Room, White Room, Black Room seeks to present a collage of the lives of three generations and cultural classes in modern Shanghai.

Co-written by mainland Chinese playwrights Ma Zhongjun and Qin Peichin, the drama uses the three 'coloured' rooms metaphorically to speak of the nation's search for identity, love and dignity.

A group of brash roadworkers occupy the Red Room, led by the has-been rebel Shui-fu. The White Room has been rented to a young painter, pursued by the young daughter of the Ai family.

The Black Room serves as the ground for the old, fading ideology; this space is interrupted by Lin-han, the Ai's eldest daughter and one of the new women professionals in China.

The play opens with a vignette of propaganda-style communist theatre and a chanteuse's serenade.

A young woman carrying a baby comes to the Ai mansion searching for her lost lover. Shui-fu concocts a story about his imminent return which then progresses into a farcical wedding that ultimately can never be realised.

Lin-han develops a love-hate relationship with the rebel and her aged father suffers a heart attack after discovering a nude portrait of his beloved younger daughter.

The first act never really takes off. After 90 minutes of the play, the focus is weak and there is a general lack of intensity to the story. Adapted and directed by Fredric Mao, the problem doesn't rest so much on the direction or the cast's capacity to perform, but in the original script, or its adaptation. The feel was plodding and aimless.

One particularly emotional, key scene has Shui-fu confessing his deeply hidden desire to drink the milk of his mother again. Promptly and without a hint of self-consciousness, our sad single mother-heroine provides the substance in a drinking-mug and it is quickly drunk. This was supposed to be a seriously philosophical gesture, but it ended up coy and kitschy.

Red Room, White Room, Black Room concludes in a melancholic wedding where all the characters lose themselves in a carnival of promises and broken dreams. The scene was unfortunately badly served by a torturous, whimsical organ tune.

In spite of the play's sincerity, I am unsure whether I watched something that is gritty and real, or merely a cliche.

Red Room, White Room, Black Room, Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, City Hall Theatre