Shakespeare’s Sonnets Hit the Hong Kong Stage

Time is never on the side of lovers. In Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example, it is a “bloody tyrant” that steals youth and beauty. For director Ata Wong, however, who has deeply studied the sonnets, time moves far too slowly: “We always say, ‘Time will tell,’ and I always ask: ‘Can I see it now?’”

Wong’s curiosity is on full view in #1314, a purposeful, even philosophical reflection on the sonnets by his company, Théâtre de la Feuille. He describes himself as “impatient” but he has spent years developing #1314, which saw earlier iterations as an erotically charged piece for 10 dancers that premiered in Beijing in 2016, and a moody film set in an abandoned mansion made for Hong Kong Week 2021@Guangzhou, an initiative of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department to introduce Hong Kong artists to mainland Chinese audiences. This newest version, presented by Jockey Club New Arts Power, offers a startling choreography for the greatest love poems of the Western canon and features a 22-member choir that delivers the sonnets as haunting Cantopop ballads from the team of lyricist Chow Yiu-ai and composer Charles Kwong.

#1314 by Théatre de la Feuille, a moody film set in an abandoned mansion made for Hong Kong Week 2021@Gaungzhou – Photo courtesy JCNAP

Dramatising the sonnets is a challenge that has stymied more renowned directors than Wong. The temptation to mine the poems for their most evocative verses in the service of a through line or to string them together as a canvas for personal fantasies has not always served the texts or their adapters well; Robert Wilson’s Sonnets, created with the Berliner Ensemble in 2014, was excoriated by critics for his visually stunning yet obtuse manhandling of a classic. “If wishes would prevail with me, my purpose should not fail with me,” was some powerful aspirational thinking that worked for Henry V, to borrow from Shakespeare’s history plays, but not all great men are so charmed.

Wong wades in where angels may rightly fear to tread, but with the measured step of a zen monk for whom nature is an open book of wisdom. His distillation of the sonnets into a search for hope despite the sufferings of love has some of the simply observed profundity of a koan. The allusion is not so far-fetched; in a conversation with Wong among the jumble of Théâtre de la Feuille’s rehearsal studio in Hung Hom, under an imposing antique framed painting of Shakespeare and a photograph of a young Samuel Beckett, Wong speaks at times with an opaque lucidity that grasps an interviewer’s questions at unexpected angles. 

Discussing Sonnet 129, one of Shakespeare’s most famous for its portrayal of the struggle against sexual desire (The expense of spirit in a waste of shame/Is lust in action), Wong summarises the poem as a dilemma of moral responsibility that transcends the self. “Which is more important?” he asks rhetorically. “Do you want to satisfy your desire or care for others?” He concludes that the essential question posed by the sonnet is “balance” for which contemporary readers can turn to religion, philosophy or art for guidance. 

That is to say that #1314 approaches the sonnets as an investigation, not of romantic poetry, but through and past those breathless tropes into the complex and sticky novel that is relationships. Wong’s choreography employs restrained, calculated gestures that find underneath the hot passion of the sonnets a dance with doubt and a lurking fear of the extremes of emotion, whether love or hate. Reflections such as “Desire is death” (Sonnet 147) take on a mournful quality in the hands of the cast who circle and hang on each other, gather and retreat to their corners. Under their brooding spell, the show’s title—yat1 saam1 yat1 sei3 in Cantonese (壹三壹四), which sounds like “one life, one world” and has become Chinese shorthand for “I love you forever”—is, with its hashtag, an ironic reference to social media declarations of undying love, and the choir’s presence an equally pointed allusion to the chorus of Greek tragedy and its socially normative functions. 

“Love is not always between lovers, but also between people,” Wong offers by way of an explanation, returning to his preoccupation with responsibility over desire. “We can say, I love you forever, but actually it’s so hard to make that happen for me.” In Hong Kong, since the 2019 social movement, he says, “It feels like we lost this kind of relationship.” 

If these are unconventional interpretations of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Wong has dedicated his work as a theatre artist to interpreting the world in radically simple and true terms. In his own words, he is on “the journey of a person who loves the theatre,” and it has led him to seek wisdom from two of its greatest pedagogues: the French mime artist Jacques Lecoq and the English director Peter Brook. In their own ways, but with a shared focus on the essentials of acting and performance, Lecoq and Brook revolutionised stage practice from the bottom up, beginning with an actor, an audience and, in Brook’s now famous formulation, an “empty space.”  

While the sage, zen master-like Brook is the better known of the two, thanks to his formidable directorial oeuvre, Lecoq arguably left a longer legacy to acting in the École Jacques Lecoq’s two-year professional actor training programme. If you have ever seen a work of physical theatre, chances are at least a grain of Lecoq’s theories seeded it, so influential are they in Western performing arts thanks to the phenomenal success of Complicité, a theatre company founded by graduates of the school. Today, the Lecoq name is something of a cipher for a gnomic, organic, often mute, intensely observant, spiritually exultant theatre practice, based on the core belief that the “body is the primary element of recognition of the living being” and that the actor must train in “the reenactment of everything which moves, whether in life or on stage.” 

Wong graduated from the École Jacques Lecoq in 2010 and trained subsequently with Brook in Paris during the filming of The Tightrope (2012), which reveals the working methods of Brook’s International Centre for Theatre Research. It was Brook who, some years later, found the words Wong says he needed to hear to continue his journey after a period of “frustration” as an artist who aspires to change the world for the better in a world that gives artists little credence. Lecoq, who passed away in 1999, taught his students to “find their storyteller,” Wong summarises of his training. A metaphor for his own story might be the hero’s journey of mythology and legend; he has sought and grasped Western theatre’s holy grail of knowledge and used it to forge a deeper understanding of Eastern traditions, making him a unique artist in Hong Kong. 

For now at least, Wong’s journey continues in Hong Kong, too. Although Théâtre de la Feuille is an international touring company that typically premieres its work in China, the pandemic and the company’s production of Lost Adults in May 2021 at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre changed that focus in a way that may even outlive Hong Kong’s quarantine policy. The show’s circus aesthetic of high-flying trapeze acrobatics was an invitation into the psychologically perilous parent-child-sibling relationships of J.M. Barrie’s novel— rather than the edulcorated Disney version—which Wong chose to explore in the wake of the 2019 social movement and its collective trauma, especially for families that were divided over its issues. A childhood fan of the Peter Pan story, “I could feel it could help something,” he says of his decision to create Lost Adults.  “We need the time to just be together,” an opportunity that theatre, uniquely, offers. To illustrate his point, he recalls a conversation he had with government officials after a performance in China: “We were not talking about nationality or governments or political issues, just as people. It’s so hard to change a person in a day or an hour, but after a show, you talk to me directly, I think it’s good. It’s all about conversation.”

If the present role of Wong’s storyteller is to help Hong Kong people process and reflect on the last two years, he will have his work cut out for him, but the experience of premiering Lost Adults here fostered new connections between his company and local audiences, and he predicts more Hong Kong premieres will follow. Nevertheless, touring remains the lifeblood of the company’s identity, for the exchanges and enrichment that only happen when seeing the world through another’s eyes. Sounding a little like Peter Pan himself, Wong admits, “Hong Kong is not the place for us. It’s all around.”

This wayfarer has not stopped seeking knowledge, and the role of the pedagogue comes naturally as well. Wong completed the Lecoq’s teacher education programme in 2018, and has plans to study kabuki and martial arts in Japan in 2022, if travel restrictions are lifted. In the Physical Acting Labs offered by Théâtre de la Feuille and at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, where he teaches devised theatre, Wong instructs students not to act at all. As a demonstration, in rehearsal, Wong asks the cast of #1314 to think of an emotion in the sonnets and then embody it in the form of an object, which this reporter has to guess. One actor rolls up and down with his upper body, as if suspended from an invisible marionnettiste’s strings; another adopts a rigid pose lying on his side, with his head and feet raised off the ground; another does awkward somersaults. The poses prompt giggles and a contemplative silence. I offer that the puppet pose looks like a sisyphean struggle to maintain appearances and the prostrate actor seems to have been shot from a cannon. Wong gives me a raised eyebrow and a cryptic “Ahh…” 

Lecoq did not teach a physical language of performance, he stresses to me in the ensuing discussion, but a way to see the world “like a baby,” without preconceptions. The training he received at the École Lecoq’s Laboratory of Movement Study—an additional one-year course in kinetic set design of which #1314’s chorus-cum-set is an object lesson—is another example of seeing like a child, perceiving form and movement in empty space. He provides feedback to the actors—“you can’t just create an object, the object must have a message to give”—then wraps up the exercise, this time for my understanding:  “We don’t need to find answers,” he says. “The main thing is feeling.” 

“I think for an artist in Hong Kong, it’s the best time for us to create something. How can we express the feelings [of 2019]?” he continues, when pressed on the role he sees for Théâtre de la Feuille in Hong Kong today. He looks to sharing, open dialogue, and yes, even love, to start the healing process. “It takes time to digest changes. Maybe it’s too fast for us but I know it will happen. If we have 100 per cent freedom, society would become very dangerous. Judgement is very easy but how can we find a better place for ourselves as artists to share?”

Time will tell indeed, but with #1314, Wong is betting that love is the feeling Hong Kong needs most now. 

#1314 runs from December 24–26, 2021. Click here for showtimes and tickets.

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