No script needed for hilarious and thoughtful Detention

By Melanie Leung

A local stage production shows that you don't always need words to tell a story, or to spread a message of hope

By Melanie Leung |

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(From left) Chan Man-kwan, Cheng Chun-tung, RX Wong Ho-pong, and Tsai-Chih-wei star in Detention.

Usually it's the good students that are complimented, but for once the naughty kids are getting the applause. They're the actors in the dialogue-free play Detention, which is trying to break this prejudice.

It's a comedy about four mischievous students stuck in an after-school detention session, overseen by their fiery teacher.

At first glance, the characters are what you'd expect to find in a typical classroom: the fat boy, the popular girl, the geeky short kid and the cool guy. But there is more to these troublemakers than meets the eye. The cool dude can play classic Chinese songs on the piano, the nerd is an aerobics master, Mr Chubby is a romantic guitarist, and Ms Popularity is a budding artist.

Director Tang Shu-wing, who taught at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts for seven years, says the play questions society putting textbook knowledge over everything else. He doesn't think there is a clear definition about what is really good or bad for students.

The prospect of a 90-minute play with no speaking or scene changes didn't sound great, and your reporter thought it would be boring. Wrong!

Combining Chinese dance, opera, drums, and acrobats with lots of humour, Detention had the audience laughing all through the show.

Tang's interest in non-verbal drama was aroused when he saw two people in France miming a tennis match. "Their energy was infectious," says Tang. "Many people stopped to watch, yet not a word was said."

He says "silent dramas" allow for more surprises, and that adds to the comedy.

"Don't you think we rely too much on language for communication?" asks Tony Leung, general manager of the Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio. He believes that when we listen to words or read subtitles, it distracts us. Words are toned and polished, and require mental energy to decode their meanings. Without them, the audience is free to better appreciate the acting and story.

The dialogue-free format also makes it acceptable for audiences of all ages and ethnicities. Detention has received invitations to perform on the mainland, as well as in Macau, Edinburgh, Scotland, and Canada.

After catching the attention of Andy Ng, head of the Society of Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention (SRACP), the Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio collaborated with the charity to stage two fundraising shows last month, with SRACP representatives taking the stage as guest performers.

Ng says many young offenders are similar to the students in the play. They have hidden talents, but aren't confident enough to show them. "They may be covered in tattoos, or have bleached hair, but their innocence and motivation can surprise you," he says.

Ng says employment is the most crucial factor which keeps them from returning to crime, so SRACP social workers start connecting with offenders while they are in jail, providing them with vocational training. Hopefully, this will encourage them to seek help when they face challenges even after they are released, he adds.

As the show ended, Tang told the cheering audience that performing for a good cause has brought art to a whole new level. Leung agrees. The purpose of art is to make humanity better. "Art for art's sake is meaningless," he says.

The three-year-old drama will celebrate its 100th performance this December, but Leung hopes the play will become a long-running local production.

Highlights of the play