Reimagining Hong Kong in Theatre Without Animals

Imagined Communities, political scientist Benedict Anderson’s study of the cultural and social yearnings that drive nationalisms, was groundbreaking in 1983 for exposing the tools nations use to shape identity. Yet its greatest legacy—the premise that all communities are imaginary constructs—percolated from academia into popular discourse thanks in part to the concurrently growing field of postcolonial studies, for which invented group identities were as much a part of the landscape as rubber plantations, coolies, and “civilising” missionary zeal. 

Hong Kong people know something about that, of course, having always faced slippery and even contested notions of identity and belonging. But just as a swelling Hong Kong diaspora again faces the challenge of inventing new communities abroad, a group of theatre students with no plans to leave home are applying a humorous reverse psychology to imagined communities. Logic be damned, they are re-evaluating what it is to be a Hongkonger by imagining how to be… French. 

The project is taking shape as the graduation performance of Ima Collab, a young theatre collective that formed during a year-long training programme that directors Chan Chu-hei and Julia Mok began last October. Their text: Théâtre sans animaux (Theatre without animals), a series of absurdist short plays by contemporary French playwright and director Jean-Michel Ribes. Ribes’ drolly piercing sketches about ordinary French society, combined with Ima Collab’s enthusiasm for a certain je ne sais quoi, landed the group a spot in the 2022 lineup of French May, which continues during the pandemic to seek local partnerships to create contemporary French drama in Hong Kong. 

An Ima Collab rehearsal about three weeks before the show’s opening could easily have been mistaken for a student French Club costume party. Actors were running in and out of two rehearsal rooms on the top floor of an industrial building in Tai Kok Tsui, looking like a cast of extras from Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, the hit 2001 film starring Audrey Tautou, in bright polka dot and gingham dresses, clown overalls, formal gowns and hipster Lacoste. A young man dressed in only a bathrobe, towel turban and pencil moustache stood with his hands on his hips while a woman channelling Charlie Chan was locked in intense conversation with a mysterious intellectual in a long corduroy coat and ascot. With the brook-no-fools efficiency of a headmistress, Mok deftly corralled her charges into position to rehearse the play’s final scene, where five friends discuss art and life, as only the French can do.

Among French contemporary playwrights, Ribes, now 75, has trained a connoisseur’s eye on French society over his half-century career, armed with an acidic plume and a knack for tying the French language into knots. It is a talent that has taken him to the heights of French dramatic acclaim. Théâtre sans animaux—whose deadpan title hints at both the work’s surreal proclivities and prosaic situations—won the Académie Française’s Grand Prize for French Theatre in 2001. Ribes’ last hit, Musée haut, musée bas, earned him a nomination for Best Living Francophone Author.

Yet it is as the director of the Théâtre du Rond-Point, which launched the careers of the great mid-century absurdist playwrights Eugène Ionesco, Jean Anouilh and Samuel Beckett, that Ribes has become a household name in France, tirelessly buoying up the work of emerging writers against the tides of commercial French publishing and entertainment. In an appropriately surreal twist that speaks volumes about Ribes’ iconoclasm and defence of young talents, after French May and Ribes’ own agents could not reach the author to secure the rights to the play in Hong Kong, Chan and Mok did what ordinary people do: they messaged Ribes on Facebook. And like an equally ordinary netizen, Ribes responded.

Théâtre sans animaux contains eight short scenes that centre on instantly familiar, intimate relationships: squabbling couples, siblings given an unequal share of talent, parents and children who don’t speak the same language, friends with surprising secrets. Tantalisingly simple at first, the scenes are always disrupted by absurd or shocking revelations, and even the appearance of an enormous Bic pen stuck at a perilous angle through a country house. In the museum scene Ima Collab rehearsed the evening of a reporter’s visit, the conversation turns on a dime from art to biology, so that, between humans in a museum and their prehistoric marine ancestors, it might be an open question as to which is the more evolved species.

“I love this scene,” Chan said during a break, after having directed the cast of 16 (15 students plus professional actor Lai Chai-ming) to explore sculptural poses and the ondulations of swimming fish. “The play has a universal theme of freedom. Maybe Hong Kong audiences will have their own interpretation about it, why they would want [like Ribes’ characters] to become fish again.” He left the thought hanging; it could have been a line from the play.

Chan’s nearly two-decade-long career in Hong Kong theatre has taken an investigative approach to international performance theories and styles. Théâtre sans animaux marks the first time Chan will direct a work by a French playwright, but he has explored texts by Vaclav Havel, Eugene O’Neill, Hanoch Levin and Hiroshi Koike. As theatre pedagogues, Chan and Mok insist on a holistic training that includes cultural studies, Chinese literature, public speaking, storytelling, stage combat and movement training, taught by themselves as well as by invited local and international teachers. By bringing Théâtre sans animaux to the stage, Ima Collab’s members have also received hands-on training in the behind the scenes work of set design and building, administration, marketing and promotion, as well as translation of the script into Cantonese (from the only existing Mandarin version and with the oversight of a cultural officer from the Alliance Française). 

“I’m not interested in just training an actor to be an entertainer,” says Chan. “I want actors who are creators and want to do research.” Mok seconds the thought: “They are getting a taste of every department in theatre-making. A life in the theatre is not just about acting and enjoying the applause.”

For Ima Collab’s students to get into a French headspace, Chan and Mok assigned them a research task: to find traces of France in Hong Kong and reflect on what these evoke. Those investigations, posted on Ima Collab’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, have become a poetic space for the troupe to explore longing, nostalgia, and memory. “Blue, white and red combined can be the French flag, or it can be the sweet memory of Hong Kong,” one student mused after seeing a tricolour Softee ice cream truck that took her back to her childhood. Another equated the French national colours to mahjong wind and dragon tiles while a third found inspiration in a French styled lighter to imagine herself as a suffragette stealing a sidewalk smoke in 1930s Paris. Their reflections, which do not escape the occasional cliché but are the  more poignant for these, write an informal thesis on imagined communities, specifically a France idealised by Hong Kong youth hungry for French values of individual freedom, beauty and pleasure. 

Students also explored French TV and film comedies to try to understand Ribes’ humour, but actress Tsang Hoi-yu explained that the experience of watching the French Netflix series Family Business (about Marais Jews whose decision to go into the cannabis trade leads to some epic family feuding) brought revelations of a different order. “The family hierarchy is not that strong [in France],” she said she was surprised to discover. “Each individual [in the series] is still in their identity but they are still speaking their mind and at the same time [the family members] have strong bonding. We find that is actually quite different from what we are experiencing now in Hong Kong [where] children may not speak so directly.”

Ribes’ miniature family dramas turn out to be fertile terrain for exploring Hong Kong society, too. He tugs at intersubjectivity and the Sartrean idea that “hell is other people,” while looking for the interstices of human connection and community, even if only on a biological level: a bit like a school of fish. But these young Hongkongers who share a great respect for the ideas of postmodern French philosophers ranging from Sartre and Derrida to Camus and De Beauvoir, also don’t need those grands penseurs to explain to them, as Sartre did in post WWII France for his compatriots, that the freedom of the individual to think for himself is the highest expression of being human and yet that it also comes with the price of responsibility for others. 

Asked why they would choose a perilous career path in the theatre in these uncertain times, these twenty- and thirty-somethings who study full time or work retail and gig jobs to get by said they believe in the power of art to help them “exist” in Hong Kong society. The greatest legacy of Ima Collab’s experiment in imagined communities with Théâtre sans animaux may be that it spawns a group of avid Hong Kong Francophiles who are interested in that wholly French genre: the theatre of ideas. The French would offer a rallying encouragement to that ambition to join them: bon courage.

Théâtre sans animaux is part of the French May and runs from June 17 to 19, 2022, at the Ngau Chi Wan Civic Centre Theatre. Click here for more information. 

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