Social media has transformed everything it touches from our day-to-day interactions to politics. The arts have not been spared either: new styles are emerging that not only rely on social media but also draw inspiration from the global phenomena.
#HKproblems_theplay is an ideal example of new age theatre that uses social media as a tool and a muse. Based on the Twitter hashtag #hongkongproblems - made hugely popular by locals venting their irritations online - the play is comprised of a series of short Pantomime-styled skits that shine a light on the petty nuances of the city from transport (MTR platforms are battlefields at any time of day) and the highly superficial dating culture (only bankers/doctors/engineers with fat bank accounts are the ideal) to the typical behavioral tendencies of expats (‘gweilos’). It also touched upon a range of serious issues that plague Hong Kong: eye-watering rents, the treatment of Filipino domestic helpers, high suicide rates among the youth and the inhumane working hours, to name a few.
The play, performed last night at Grappa’s Cellar, was as hilarious as I expected it to be, with large dollops of vulgarity (which comedy is complete without some?) and talented actors. To add an edge, relevant hashtags were projected onto a screen, like #taxi, #technology, #fashion etc., alongside text messages between the actors and a live feed of the #HKproblems_theplay hashtag by Tweeters in the audience, which proved to be a fun and novel way to continuously interact with the audience.
This was the second run of #HKproblems_theplay, the first of which ran in March with more to come later this year. I suspect the production can only get better as it learns exactly what tickles the audience and refines itself. Perhaps, a great element to add would be a theatresports improvisation section inspired by Whose Line Is It Anyway? that would allow the audience to throw in some themes making it even more interactive and fun.
The question it raises though is how the evolving medium of theatre can embrace technology without displacing the raw ‘art’ itself. How can actors, dancers, talents share the stage with technology without the technology stealing the limelight? Beyonce’s 3D dance performance at the Billboards Music Awards last year is a case in point – fantastic, innovative, phenomenal but were we admiring the dancers or the technology?
Here’s a little clip from the show:
Very little is known about Molière, despite the fact that he is considered to be one of France’s greatest playwrights – the country’s own Shakespeare. There are no surviving physical personal possessions, no journals or letters or manuscripts, from which one can see the playwright as himself rather than through the latticework of his plays.
What is known is that the young Molière departed from his bourgeois family to set up his own theatre company from scratch – the Illustre Théâtre. Unfortunately, his success took off to an extremely bumpy start and he was forced to perform in the provinces outside of Paris for almost 12 years before the discerning city would eventually embrace him.
The Shadow Players emulate young Molière’s courage and enthusiasm for acting. The new theatre company, set up completely from scratch by local graduates of University of Hong Kong and Chinese University of Hong Kong, made their debut last night at the Fringe Club with The Learned Ladies of Mid-Levels, which is a localized and translated version of none other than one of Molière’s masterpieces: Les Femmes Savantes.
Fortunately, that’s where the similarities end. Molière’s debut was a failure and, contrastingly, the Shadow Player’s are off to a dazzling start.
The Learned Ladies of Mid-Levels preserves the plot of the original play except for the fact that it is set in modern day Hong Kong. Henriette is in love with Sebastian and the two want to get married. Unfortunately for the couple, Henriette’s rich, well-educated and bizarre family is as big an obstacle as any, which consists of her sister, Justine, her mother and matriarch, Pamela, her submissive father, Cedric, and his brother and sister, Charles and Bernice respectively. Pamela and Justine, along with Bernice, oppose the marriage and instead want poor Henriette to marry C.Y Tang – an intellectual fraud they hold in high regard. Cedric and his brother support Henriette and thus begins a comical fight for the young couple’s love.
The play is an “opera for spoken word” – a style that Molière himself championed, though not with Les Femmes Savantes. Each character is given a leitmotif (a musical theme), performed by a live group of musicians that are dressed in 17th century attire (surely a nod to the plays roots) and seated on the stage behind a picture frame to form the backdrop of the family’s Mid-Levels apartment where the entire plot unravels. Each character’s rhythmic, poetic speeches are all timed to match their leitmotifs, enabling the creation of a range of emotional atmospheres.
The Learned Ladies is a satire of haughty intellectualism. It tries to draw the audience’s attention to the crucial difference between true learning and “mere pedantary, ostentation, and sententiousness,” as director Julian Lamb explains. Pamela, Justine and Bernice are the three that place academia – the “nobler objects” - on an unreasonably high pedestal and their interests are taken to absurd, ridiculous extremes; in fact, as Justine proclaims, they are “married to philosophy”. On the other hand, Hanriette, Sebastian, Cedric and Charles see the value of knowledge that can be used practically and cherish the pleasures of the real world, such as love, family, gastronomy and, above all, honesty.
Their differences – the supposedly enriched versus the supposedly dull - are made very clear in their costumes, where rich colours confront dull simplicity; those with lofty, “intellectual” ideals are dressed in colourful, bright costumes that are taken to such extremes that they only come across as ridiculous while the more grounded bunch are dressed in regular, layman costumes in paler colour palettes making them come across as comparatively sane.
The Learned Ladies touches upon Cartesian dualism philosophy too. The difference between the hyper-intellectual and the normal represent the differences between body and soul. The question of the relationship between the two is very clearly put forward by Henriette’s mother, who asks rhetorically “who ought to govern, mother or father, mind or body, form or matter,” nudging the audience to agree with her in praising the mind and form.
The play makes you chuckle. Everytime the ridiculous confronted reality, laughter filled the small Underground Theatre. It’s an ambitious task executed very well: the young actors are not only cast perfectly but consistently maintain as much melodrama as the play requires.
The original Les Femmes Savantes touched upon female emancipation at a time when that was a real social issue, which is perhaps one of the reasons it was so popular. Written during the Renaissance, Molière challenges the rigid portraits of women as merely domestic swans by presenting women as equals that are capable of grasping and relishing superior intellectual concepts. Since The Learned Ladies of Mid-Levels keeps the plot and script almost completely unchanged, that element carried forward over the centuries seems to be anachronistic to modern day Hong Kong. Lamb explains that the play “is less concerned with the issue of female emancipation than it is with the question of how emancipation of any kind can be achieved through education.” But, a play that stirs hearts is one that stays with the audience, for better or for worse. If only the Shadow Players had taken the liberty to introduce and explore a social issue that is relevant to modern day Hong Kong, the play would have been absolutely perfect.
Despite that, The Learned Ladies of Mid-Levels drives its main point home: that “the learned fool is more of a fool than an ignorant one,” as the frustrated Sebastian angrily explains. It is a marvelous play, entertaining from start to finish, the actors are genuinely talented and the new theatre company is headed towards a bright, illustrious future.
Verdict: Catch it if you can
PS: The play is being performed in the Underground Theatre at The Fringe Club from April 24th to 27th at 1930, with an additional matinee performance at 1400 on Saturday, April 27th. The play lasts for 1 hour and 45 minutes, with a 10 minute interval.
Tickets can be purchased from www.hkticketing.com: $240 Adult, $192 Fringe Club members, $150 Senior citizens and $160 Disabled.
For more information on The Shadow Players, visit www.hkshadowplayers.com.
In light of the recent tragedy in Boston, a look into the definition is terrorism is worthwhile.
In Ethics of Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism - a compilation of essays on the subject edited by Georg Meggle - Janna Thompson gives that elusive, shape-shifting notion of terrorism a solid definition.
A group should be regarded as terrorist if it fails to meet at least one of the three conditions of legitimacy she sets forth:
When applied to real world examples, her theory makes perfect sense. Take Al-Qaeda, for example, since it is a terrorist organization that is at the forefront of the West's rather misguided 'war on terror'.
The fact that Al-Qaeda openly takes responsibility for bomb attacks around the world (Thompson's first condition) reflects its desire to be viewed as a 'legitimate authority' in order to elevate its status from a group of lawless criminals to a group that is supposedly acting on behalf of Muslim people.
But, Thompson continues:
By failing all tests of legitimacy, the group can officially be classified as terrorist.
Most importantly, Thompson does not necessarily subscribe to the view that acts of terrorism are those politically motivated acts that spread terror by attacking innocents nor to the idea that terrorism is always morally wrong. Attacks specifically on military personnel or property (combatants) can still be seen as terrorist acts. Horrific state actions can be classified as terrorism too (such as Nazi Germany, which was not only removed but was also subjected to criminal proceedings) and sub-state groups that have enough legitimacy can be spared the title of terrorist (such as revolutionary acts in tyrannical states, in which case it is not morally wrong).
The past always possesses a glint of allure and the further back an era is, the more intriguing it seems.
The current generation's obsession with the Mad Men series or even Downton Abbey and Oscar Wilde’s works – despite the fact that they depict eras that were repressive, misogynistic, politically incorrect (in fact political correctness wasn't even invented back then) and technologically stunted - can only be explained by the fact that those periods in time are so beyond our first-hand experiences that the only way to understand the different ways of life is through second hand sources, leaving plenty of room for a little imagination. It comes down to a mixture of curiosity and fantasy; surely no modern woman wants to go back to a time where universal suffrage was unheard of, but the idea of an illicit romance or being the first woman to sell an advertising pitch is thrilling.
For older generations, the past is rose-tinted. It’s the “good old times” of better manners, sophistication and a lot more excitement, being at the cusp of monumental historic changes.
Colonial Asia is one such era for its inhabitants: alluring for both the current and older generations despite the illiberal nature of that period. In fact, I once heard a joke by a stand up comedian in Hong Kong that, in short, begged the British to come back and rule the island nation again.
The Picture This gallery (the same gallery that exhibits Anton Lyalin's fantastic wildlife photography) is tapping into that exact nostalgia and intrigue with its The Orient By Design exhibition, which will run from April 23 until May 4. The exhibition will be showcasing rare vintage Asian posters that advertise consumer products and travel services dating from 1920 to 1970. Each poster is like a keyhole, providing us with little slices of information about the era. The Burmese brandy poster from the 1920s, for example, provides a little history about the alcohol industry at the time as well as British Burma. Jules Robin and Company was the first cognac company to ship its brandy in bottles instead of cases thus starting a trend that continues to this day. Also, the use of a seemingly happy local Burmese man was perhaps deliberate because at the time there was quite a lot of local resentment against the British (who invaded in 1886) and their way of life. The poster was probably an attempt to pacify the population by portraying a rather Western product being embraced locally.
This wonderful exhibition allows us a peek into a faraway era that was, in some ways, quite quant. It's Mad Men with an Asian twist.