Unmasked in Hong Kong: LCSD to bring exceptional masked theatre performances to the city
For its ‘From Puppets to Humans’ series, LCSD is hosting two masked theatre shows – ‘Infinita’ by Familie Flöz, and ‘André and Dorine’ by Kulunka – which reveal the expressive nature of this ancient art form
We have long been fascinated by the uncanny effect of wearing a mask. The earliest evidence of using masks dates to some 35,000 years ago when an early artist painted a figure wearing a horned mask on the rock walls of Fumane Cave in Italy. The figure, 18cm in length, has outstretched arms as if holding an object, while further down the body widens and two legs appear in the form of an arch. Some have suggested the mysterious figure was a witch doctor or sorcerer.
Masks have also been depicted at other sites around the world, including at the Lascaux caves of southern France dating up to 20,000 years ago, the Bhimbetka rock shelters in central India from at least the Mesolithic period almost 12,000 years ago, and at Magura Cave in Bulgaria, where paintings are dated to be from about 10,000 years ago.
While these paintings give just fleeting glimpses into mankind’s ancient enchantment with masks, the Neolithic “spirit” masks from the Judean Foothills in Jerusalem are even more captivating. Fashioned from stone 9,000 years ago, they – along with the strangely simple, round mask on display at the small Musée Bible et Terre Sainte in Paris – are the oldest existing masks in the world. The masks are thought to represent the spirits of dead ancestors and may have been worn during Stone Age ceremonies and rituals.
Masks are still used in religious ceremonies spanning the globe, from the Yoruba, Igbo and Edo cultures of Africa to the shamanistic ceremonies of Arctic coastal communities and Buddhist dances of Tibet. Whether for communicating with ancestral spirits or the spirits of animals, exorcising evil forces, invoking protector deities, or healing the sick, masks are often used as a compelling gateway between the wearer, the audience and another realm.
So, too, are masks used in theatre. The slightly unsettling ability of a mask to be both a barrier between the actor and the audience, and a conduit to expression and emotion through the body, makes it a powerful stage element.
“The body is the oldest instrument we have to communicate. What a mask is doing in a way is simply giving emphasis to the body and how it moves,” says Hajo Schüler of German mask theatre group Familie Flöz. “And the audience is an incredible specialist on body language. They read everything, unconsciously perhaps, but there’s a very deep knowledge. It enables a profound connection with the spectator.”
While theatre is now enjoyed more as entertainment or art, in some cultures theatre was an important part of daily life. In Ancient Greece, and especially in the city state of Athens where culture, poetry, and the arts were valued as bedrocks of civilisation, stage drama received special status. Greek theatre, which developed from festivals honouring the gods, quickly became popular, especially the three main types of play: tragedy, comedy, and satyr (comedic satire).
Japan, too, is famous for its masked theatre. Noh is the world’s oldest major theatre art that is still regularly performed today. It was developed during the 14th century by actor, author and musician Kan’ami Kiyotsugu and his son, actor and playwright Zeami Motokiyo. Still today, audiences flock to see traditional Japanese stories brought to life on the stage through the use of masks, costumes, props, music, dance and very stylised gestures that represent emotions.
The hero of Noh performances, known as “shite”, is usually a supernatural being transformed into human form who narrates the story. Only the shite usually wears a mask, although the shitetsure, or companion, may wear a mask to represent female characters.
Noh masks allow the audience to read the character’s gender, age, and social ranking. There are about 450 different masks in Noh theatre, mostly based on 60 types, and usually carved from Japanese cypress. Some of the more iconic roles in Noh theatre are ghosts, women, children, and the elderly, while there are also masks to represent animals, demons or divine figures.
Also highly stylised and incorporating music, dance and storytelling, Bian Lian is one of Chinese opera’s masked theatre styles. In Bian Lian, or “face-changing”, performers often dressed in costumes depicting well-known characters from Chinese opera, change masks in a split second with the flick of a wrist, a movement of the head or the swipe of a fan.
Bian Lian performers usually reveal their real faces at the end of a performance, an unmasking that only reinforces the mystery of their art of changing masks so quickly. But for most other masked theatre forms, not seeing behind the mask is part of the magic.
“You could say that we don’t restrict facial expression – it’s just that we shift that into the audience’s imagination,” says Schüler, who is the artistic director of masked theatre performance, Infinita, which is coming to Hong Kong next month.
“We play young kids as well as old people – that’s only possible because we use masks,” he says. “In the imagination of the audience the mask can turn into something alive.”
Audiences can help bring to life Infinita’s masks from May 11 to 13 at Ko Shan Theatre New Wing. The show is being performed as part of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department’s “From Puppets to Humans” series.
Also in the series is mask and mime theatre show, André and Dorine, which will be performed from June 22 to 24 at Hong Kong City Hall. The performance is by Kulunka Theatre Company from Spain’s Basque region.
Kulunka’s dossier for the show echoes Schüler’s explanation of masked theatre performance. “In our goal of creating a show without boundaries, our desire is to find a language that transcends the word. A language that thrills and entertains, ‘so emotive that it triggers laughter, and so funny that it makes viewers mourn,’” it says.
“To achieve this, we rely primarily on a theatre of gesture, in which masks act as a bridge to another world of a poetic visual endearing. Our masks, of deep features, so expressive, so full of life, open the doors of imagination and bring us to a universe in which everything is possible.”
As ancient Greek theatre proved, masks can be used to communicate both comedy and tragedy. The shows coming to Hong Kong play out both these two genres.
André and Dorine covers themes such as memory and forgetting, ageing and love when a character gets Alzheimer’s disease. Infinita focuses on the first and last moments of the characters’ lives, starting with a group of toddlers and ending in a retirement home. The old men in their retirement home continue in the spirit of playfulness that defined their youth. The play gives a sense of the circle of life, and raises meditations on time.
While both theatre productions deal with metaphysical concepts and poignant issues, they also bring humour to the stage.
“Humour is the strongest thing that holds us together, I think,” Schüler says. “Humour is always based on human failure and weakness. We are all struggling for something like happiness, recognition and success. Our characters struggle for the same. They suffer, that’s why the audience can laugh about them.”
The very familiar stage figure of the clown was also an inspiration. The clown figure we know today developed out of commedia dell’arte, an early form of professional theatre from Italy that was popular during the 16th to 18th centuries. These “rustic fools” were themselves directly based on similar characters in ancient Greek and Roman theatre.
“All our masks have in a way something of a clown, they are bit ridiculous, but they have their dignity. They have some, smaller or bigger, defects, like we all have. May be the main inspiration for our mask is our own imperfection,” Schüler says.
“Laughter goes deep somehow. I think the quote from [comedian, conductor, and pianist] Victor Borge is very beautiful and also truth for the theatre: ‘laughter is the shortest distance between two people’.”
With a mask, too, that distance may be even shorter.