Tang Shu-Wing Theatre Studio
Hong Kong, Cultural Centre Studio Theatre
26 October 2012
A version of this review previously appeared in the South China Morning Post
Actor/director, Tang Shu-Wing, and contemporary choreographer, Xing Liang, are two of Hong Kong’s most celebrated artists, with multiple awards and honours to their names. In 2009 they joined forces to create an award-winning radical re-working of Cantonese opera classic, Princess Changping. Three years later they have teamed up again for an equally original take on one of China’s most famous plays, Cao Yu’s 1933 Thunderstorm.
Unlike Tang and Xing’s Princess Changping, this is not a de-construction but rather a condensation of Cao’s work, stripped down to its essentials and presented as purely physical dance-theatre. The result is a gripping drama which succeeds in depicting the complex characters and relationships of the play without a single line of dialogue.
Thunderstorm tackles a recurring theme of 20th century Chinese literature, the oppression of the old feudal family system. The Ibsenesque plot deals with tyranny, madness and revelations of incest which lead to the destruction of even the most innocent members of the family.
As a young man Zhou Puyuan fell in love with servant girl Shipeng but she was not considered a suitable wife by his upper-class family. He was forced to send her away (although keeping Ping, the son she bore him) and to marry the acceptably wealthy Fanyi by whom he had another son, Chong. Puyuan has become a tyrant who makes his wife’s life so unhappy that, desperate for affection, she has seduced her stepson Ping. Now Ping wants to break off with her as he is in love with maidservant Sifeng, who is pregnant by him. What the young lovers do not know is that Sifeng is the daughter of Ping’s own mother Shipeng by a later marriage. Things are further complicated by Ping’s young half-brother Chong also falling in love with Sifeng. A visit by Shipeng to her daughter sets off a train of events which end in tragedy.
Tang and Xing tell this dark tale with admirable economy in a series of taut scenes illuminated as if by flashes of lightning from the gathering storm of the title which broods over the action and explodes at the end. The huis clos tension builds to a finale with a touch of grand guignol – the stage is as littered with corpses as the last scene of Hamlet.
Xing has drawn on elements of contemporary dance, Chinese dance and tai chi to fashion a choreographic language of great naturalness where nothing is done for show and every movement has meaning. Known for his experimental approach, in the past Xing has rejected the concept of narrative work – ironically here he shows himself a master of the medium.
The success of such an intense drama ultimately rests with the performances and the cast of six are all perfect in their roles. A special word for Li Long-hin who brings a wonderful innocence to the role of Chong – his solo when he declares his love for Sifeng is the pure dance highlight of the production. Freshly graduated from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, he is an artist to watch.
However, the evening undoubtedly belongs to Tina Hua’s Fanyi, who dominates the stage from start to finish – the eye is drawn to her even in moments of stillness. Hua has long been one of Hong Kong’s finest dancers and this part sees her come into her own with a mesmerising, multi-layered portrait of a tormented woman descending into madness.
Matthew Ma’s atmospheric music and soundtrack, Billy Chan’s stunning lighting and the evocative period costumes and sets by Mandy Tam and Tsang Man-tung complete an outstanding production which deserves to be seen again.