France consistently lives up to its reputation as the world’s hotbed of romance. In the midst of the pandemic, the French government enshrined the country’s pursuit of seduction with an official decree that prioritised amour over the coronavirus and opened its otherwise closed borders to foreigners involved in “sentimental relations” with French citizens. While the rest of the world in lockdown had to conduct their affairs of the heart via Zoom and texts, the French stood tall against Covid-19 to solemnly declare that phone sex can never take the place of the real thing.
“Beware of substitutes” is also the lightly drawn message of Martial Courcier’s romantic comedy, Plus vrai que nature, which Le French May is presenting in a Cantonese production as Larger Than Life (超自然之戀). The play’s premise is an amorous relationship between a human and an android: a reliably doomed trope of speculative fiction since at least Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis. Courcier’s play, published in 2001, casts an actress in the role of the robot at a time when those were still unseen on stages. Today, however, with androids no longer the stuff of sci-fi and artificial intelligence reaching deeper into our daily lives, theatre makers are partnering with AI researchers to dramatically explore applications of robots in our lives, just as contemporary movies like Spike Jonze’s 2013 movie Her are flashing warning signs, not about a distant possibility but about an uncomfortably familiar reality.
For Larger than Life’s director and translator Tang Shu-wing, the possibility that Courcier’s perfect android could someday soon exist, attracted him to this French comedy, a genre he has not explored since he was on the drama faculty at the Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts (APA). With affinities leaning more these days to the universal lessons of Shakespeare’s tragedies and historical plays—which he reread in their entirety during the pandemic—Tang found a “contemporary twist” in Courcier’s puckish romance that he wanted to explore.
Larger than Life riffs on a familiar rom-com device: a bet that sets a relationship in motion. In this case, forty-somethings François and Julien are both unsatisfied lovers, but for different reasons. Whereas married François continues to play the field, Julien insists on finding the ideal woman and inevitably ends up alone. Enter the beautiful Chloé, an android made precisely for misanthropes like Julien, which François gifts to his friend to prove that what Julien is looking for isn’t love but a companion. The problem is that Chloé, bless her plastic heart, has her own feelings on the matter. To avoid the impossibilities of a robot-human tryst, Courcier has lifted an artful dodge from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is also another way of showing that the android is not his focus. Nor is it the concern of Tang, who chose not to explore using an android in this production. “It’s really about theatre, the human relationship, using technology as a platform of exploring human relationships,” he says.
For his first invitation to Le French May, Tang has cast three of his former APA students: the popular TV actress Mandy Wong, and actors Joe Wong and Guthrie Yip, the latter working again with Tang after previous roles in Macbeth and Titus Andronicus 2.0. As the unnervingly clever, efficient and seductive Chloé, Mandy Wong promises to take centre stage during the show’s run at Hong Kong City Hall. In rehearsal, however, Joe Wong was effortlessly driving the text’s energy and humour, delivering an effervescent, waggish François to Guthrie Yip’s paralysingly self-conscious Julien.
On a whiteboard in the rehearsal room, the French expression état d’âme had been literally translated as “state of soul,” next to “sex drive” and hand-drawn pictures of a heart, an eye and a hand. At one point during the two friends’ discussions about their expectations in love, Julien argues that his états d’âme, typically understood as scruples, prevent him from entering a deeper relationship with the women he takes to bed. Like the complicity and mystery that can simultaneously exist between lovers, the success of this Cantonese-language production will hinge on the way it both embraces and flirts with Courcier’s play.
Hong Kong audiences know Tang as a leading figure of Hong Kong theatre. Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio was named an Eminent Arts Group in 2019 by the Arts Development Council, which comes with a subvention of HK$2.2 million annually until 2024. What local audiences may not know is that the quietly intense director draws much of his inspiration from French theatre. As a young man in Paris from 1986 to 1992, he studied theory, aesthetics and history at the Sorbonne Nouvelle and trained as an actor under the influential theatre pedagogue Jean-Christian Grinevald, whom Tang credits with teaching him “fundamentals about presenting truth onstage.” He was also greatly influenced by trends in contemporary European dance at the time, discovering the work of choreographers Jean-Claude Gallotta, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Jan Fabre and Pina Bausch.
After Tang returned to Hong Kong to “witness the final stage of the Handover,” he taught and directed the comedies of Molière, Georges Feydeau and Eugène Labiche in the APA’s drama program. Through the work of his first company, No Man’s Land, and its successor, Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio, Tang has been exploring his own interpretation of an economy of gesture and movement that he learned in France and calls a “minimalism that starts with the body.” In 2007, he was named an Officer of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, in recognition of his significant contribution to the enrichment of French culture.
For Xavier Mahé, General Manager of Le French May, the decision to invite Tang to direct a work of his choice came easily. Immediately following the cancellation of the 2020 edition, Mahé and his team were already looking to feature local artists, in anticipation of continued travel restrictions worldwide and especially into Hong Kong. Ever since he joined Le French May in 2019, his intention has been to present a Cantonese-language production of a French play, to reach the widest possible audience for the festival in the city it calls home.
Le French May’s supporting organisation, the Association culturelle France-Hong Kong, was created to facilitate cross-cultural exchange, a mission that, thanks in part to the pandemic, the festival is now eager to develop. “From the very beginning, the purpose of the festival is really to build bridges between the two nations. I think one of the roots of the French May is to have this kind of collaboration, so the more we can do, the better,” says Mahé.
If international partnerships are becoming the goal of Le French May in a volatile global landscape for arts programming, discerning transnational affinities is also the work of soft power, which surprisingly offers the “contemporary twist” that attracted Tang to Larger than Life. That is to say, the android Chloé is a product of the American Engineering Corporation. While her “certified and guaranteed” made-in-USA credentials reassure François and Julien that she is a quality bot, in the context of Chloé’s relationship with Julien, her origins also raise the question of who builds and controls the AI we rely on and who guides our relationships with it in unseen ways. “The play touches very lightly on a kind of influence of the United States on Europe [around 2000],” Tang said, and as a result, “at the end, you can describe it as sad or melancholic.”
Today, of course, audiences might think of a different country when they rationalise decisions to buy AI helpers. When Tang is asked how Larger than Life can speak to the different playing field of 2021, he offers a measured reply. “If you look at the play from this angle, that could create another sphere of imagination for the current audience of today, that we are living in this era in this part of the world,” he says. However, he continues, “technology is part of our daily lives already and especially on a sentimental level and how it is related to geopolitical situations. I think that is much more interesting than just generic comedy.”
There’s an AI joke that says something to the effect that artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity. What is love without our human propensity for making mistakes? How many romances were sparked by an accident of dumb luck or a chance human error? AI is the genie that is never going back into the bottle but if we will have to learn to live with it in this century, and no longer just fantasise about it, Larger than Life reminds us that, even in a pandemic, we don’t have to love with it, too.
Larger Than Life will be performed from May 13 to 15, 2021, at City Hall Theatre. Click here for more information.