Olivia Yan puts her own take on an old Chinese classic

Theatre director Olivia Yan takes liberties with an allegoric tale to give it a modern spin, writes Vanessa Yung

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 November, 2013, 10:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 November, 2013, 10:30pm

OLIVIA YAN WING-PUI'S eyes shine with admiration when she talks about Lu Xun. Works by the Chinese writer, often referred to as the nation's conscience, are thought provoking reads and inspired Yan to write a touring play.

The drama, which premiered in 2011 at the Chinese Theatre Festival in Singapore before taking the stage at Taipei's Zhongshan Hall last year, serves as a follow-up to Lu's 1921 episodic novella, The True Story of Ah Q. It picks up the story after Ah Q, the novella's dim-witted yet self-deceptive protagonist, has been executed for theft and revolves around villagers and the developments that take place where he lived. "I really like Lu Xun. He's very different from the rest of the writers from the May Fourth Movement era," says Yan. "He's piquant and direct in pointing out societal injustices, yet he uses beautiful language that is almost poetic. I am impressed by how much he cares for society. His passion is enviable," says Yan, founder of the local O Theatre Workshop.

" The True Story of Ah Q, in particular, features vivid characters, and Ah Q symbolises all the greatest flaws of the Chinese - naivety, stupidity and selfishness. However, in a way, the villagers are more Ah Q than he is. I use them to cross-reference our society nowadays, which is even worse, and almost evil, in my opinion."

Yan makes use of elements from Chinese opera, which is something she's always been interested in due to her mother's operatic background, and all the characters have a white patch around their nose, giving them a clown-like appearance.

"It has two layers to it: it denotes that these characters are for you to laugh at, because of their stupidity and naivety, and as 'clown' is pronounced the same as 'ugly' in Chinese, it symbolises how I'd like you to look at this bunch of people," Yan says.

Another element that Yan has borrowed from Chinese opera is the simplicity of the set. Along with a scant number of props, this challenges the actors and gives the audience an opportunity to to use their imagination.

However, this is in stark contrast to the two roles played by actress Cecilia Ng Kit-yan that accentuate Yan's message. Playing a new character added since the 2011 premiere - an old woman who is constantly confused and ponders over the changing landscape of the village - Ng represents those who are struggling to recall the lost values and history that the village was built on. She is the only Cantonese-speaking character in the play and this represents her inability to integrate into society as others are eager to move forward.

This desire for progress is highlighted by a rich family's desire to reclaim a river and turn it into a road in the interest of economic development. This alludes to not only the controversial development plans in the New Territories, but also to the global dilemma of demolition versus preservation, says Yan.

Ng also plays the role of a restless phantom that represents the unwavering righteousness and the heroic sacrifices made by some people to preserve important values amid turmoil. Yan was moved by a letter Lu wrote to vent his anger and sadness after some of his students were killed during a rally in 1926 and uses the apparition to show her respect for his strong character.

Other concerns that the play touches on include consumerism, conflicts between Hong Kong and the mainland, and the fear of being assimilated. By infusing Lu's writings into the script, the theatre veteran seems to have taken on her idol's spirit of fearlessness and does just what she admires him for doing in his works.

"I love classics because there's always something important that we can learn from them," says Yan. "But I always make them my own, because only then do I feel like I'm having an interesting conversation with the author, just like the life-to-life interactions between the actors and the audience during a performance.

"There were times when I was lost and stopped trusting the power of theatre. But many outstanding performances I've seen have repeatedly proven that it's not merely a form of entertainment but something with deeper influence that affects the audience's thinking or soul. That's what gives me motivation to continue."

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Sheung Wan Civic Centre, 345 Queen's Road Central, Sheung Wan. November 15 and 16, 8pm; November 16 and 17, 3pm. HK$200 Urbtix. In Putonghua with Chinese surtitles. Inquiries: 2294 8014