Sandra Ng makes stage debut in God of Carnage
Actress and fellow Hong Kong film star Anthony Wong play against type in a production for the theatre of the French black comedy.
In one comical scene in Yasmina Reza's award-winning Le Dieu du Carnage ( God of Carnage in English), a mobile phone is dropped into a vase of tulips for dramatic effect. It's a deviant act that Sandra Ng Kwan-yu knows all too well. The popular screen actress did something similar to her film director partner Peter Chan Ho-sun's device.
"I dumped his mobile phone into the toilet once," she says, adding that Chan didn't say a word because it was his fault for ignoring her over the phone. "I gloated over his expression ... just like how the two wives laughed their heads off as the husbands try to blow dry the soaked phone [in the play]."
That experience should stand Ng in good stead for her professional stage debut in August in Dionysus Contemporary Theatre's Cantonese adaptation of the French black comedy. Directed by Olivia Yan Wing-pui and Fong Chun-kit, she will appear alongside three theatre veterans Anthony Wong Chau-sang, Poon Chan-leung and Yan. While Ng and Wong - both have successful film careers - may have the star power, the success of God of Carnage, an ensemble piece, will hinge on the onstage chemistry between the four actors.
Set inside a flat, the story revolves around two middle-class couples who meet up to resolve a dispute between their 11-year-old sons. The two boys had a fight in the playground earlier, resulting one of them having his front teeth knocked out by a stick. The injured boy's parents, Veronica and Michael (played by Ng and Wong), invite Alan (Poon) and Anna (Yan) to their home to discuss the incident, hoping to reach some kind of reconciliation. But what begins as a polite and civilised meeting soon descends into an ugly fracas between the four adults, with their personal and ideological differences bubbling to the surface and cracks of their marriages being prised wide open.
All four characters carry equal weight in the show. Yan, who directs and acts in the play, finds the shift in group dynamics between the four characters fascinating. "It's interesting to watch as the initial match between the two couples turn into stand-offs between the men and the women, and at one point a three-against-one," she says. "The tug-of-war-like tension is apparent between all the characters."
Poon adds: "It started with the couples' discussion on how to solve the problems between their children. But then it moved on to topics like how men treat women, how women view men, and later more profound issues such as racial equality and relations between civilised and less-civilised countries."
Wong appreciates the complexities of this multilayered play. "Western plays are so much richer in cultural and historical insights, which is something local ones can't compare with," the actor says. "Their scriptwriting and theatrical training is so good their scripts are often a microscopic view of the world we live in, rather than a straightforward narrative that lacks dimension.
"And although Hong Kong has been staging translated plays for a long time, most of them are not nicely adapted. Very rarely will the audience, and sometimes even the actors, understand entirely what the play is about. If we compare theatre making to cooking, those productions are still raw grains yet to be cooked into rice."
Wong, Yan and fellow actor Joyce Cheung Pui-wah set up Dionysus Contemporary Theatre two years ago, to correct that flaw. The company's goal is to develop "farsighted and high quality performances" and its debut production Equus (2014), which impressed both critics and audiences alike, confirmed their whole-hearted approach to theatre.
For Reza's play, they did little to localise the script as its theme of middle class savagery and liberal hypocrisy is a universal one. Yan says the story reflects the fact that humans are "all barbaric under the coat of civilisation", citing the recent incident in which local politician Raymond Chan Chi-chuen was filmed being chided by two women on the train for his sexual- and political-orientation. "They look middle-class and decent enough, but they act and speak like barbarians," says Yan of the women.
After its debut in Zurich in 2006, God of Carnage has played to audiences in London, New York and Hong Kong (by the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, in Cantonese; Theatre du Pif, in English; and Hong Kong Theatre Association, in French). In 2011, the play was made into a film, Carnage, directed by Roman Polanski and starring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly.
Poon - who appeared in the HKRep productions of God of Carnage between 2010 and 2012 - says part of the play's charm is its ability to resonate with people from all walks of life. "I bought and read the script before I went to the show in Broadway ," the actor recalls. "I find it very well written. The way Reza describes the mentality of modern city dwellers is very precise, especially when it comes to fundamental human traits and issues we face in our daily lives. All those, arising from her keen observation, are topped off by her witty rendering, resulting in a very comedic narrative."
A substantial amount of time was spent on understanding the dialogues and figuring out the relationships between the characters before rehearsals. That process of truly immersing themselves in their roles has presented challenges for the foursome.
"The lines are super long and I still can't remember them yet," quips Ng. "And when I forgot my line or came to a line that didn't sound convincing, I would improvise. It became so funny and whenever we tried to rehearse the same line again, we started laughing all over again." Yan interjects: "And that was when we were just two pages into the script."
As their August 6 opening performance approaches, the crew has been rehearsing seven days a week and Ng is being coached by Yan on stage techniques such as voice projection.
This is a much anticipated stage production if only because it has brought together some of this city's finest acting talents.
After graduating from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts in 1990, Yan travelled to learn under Philippe Gaulier and Monika Pagneux, before founding Theatre Ensemble in 1993 with ex partner and funnyman Jim Chim Shui-man, which was later renamed PIP Cultural Industries. She has earned numerous accolades for her acting and has moved on to focus more on directing and education in recent years.
As one of the first graduates of the APA, Wong is a recognised actor in both theatre and film. With six best actor awards under his belt for his screen work, the 53-year-old is known for his outspoken personality and fiery acting.
It may be Ng's first foray into theatre, but the multitalented actress is a veteran in the entertainment business with stints in television, film, radio and emceeing. She made her name with comical roles in her earlier movies, but winning best actress for Portland Street Blues (1998) and being nominated for Echoes of the Rainbow (2010) is evidence that she has so much more to bring to the show.
Poon joined the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre after graduating from the APA in 1991. Since then he has been rocking numerous roles from local and international screenplays alike. To date he has been nominated 10 times as either best actor or best supporting actor at the Hong Kong Drama Awards, winning three times. His stints in films have also won him prizes at the Golden Horse Awards and the Hong Kong Film Awards.
Decisions on who would play which character were made organically. Since Poon played Michael in the HKRep productions, it was decided that he should change it up and try the role of Alan.
Wong's role of the timid husband should prove intriguing to audiences, given the actor's brash public persona. Similarly, Ng, well known for her bubbly and dominating persona goes against type in her role of a submissive wife. But regardless of the roles, a scene in which the characters' verbal violence turns physical will prove to be a challenge. While Yan says they will rely on stage effects, Poon revealed that he "had to take solid blows from the actresses" in previous productions.
Ng's face lights up at the news. "That's the only way to make the action look realistic," she says, before Yan shows approval with a nod and a smirk.
God of Carnage, Academy for Performing Arts, 1 Gloucester Road, Wan Chai, August 6-8, 11-15, 18-22, 25-29, 8pm, August 9, 16, 23, 30, 3pm. HK$280-HK$980. In Cantonese. Inquiries: [email protected]
Hair: Jeff Wu
Make-up: Jolinn Ng
Hair: Seiko [email protected] Hip Hair Culture
Make-up: Arris Law
Wardrobe: MCQ from I.T, Harvey Nichols
Shoes: Jimmy Choo
Olivia Yan and Poon Chan-leung
Hair: Jeff Wu
Make-up: Priscilla Choi Spectrum
Yan’s wardrobe: agnès b