Mediocrity - What's Not to Like?
Playwright Liao Yimei's programme notes present Amber as an enticing meditation on love and desire. She writes, "In Amber I wanted to portray the complexity of human feelings. Pure and passionate emotions are easily infectious. Yet I also know that emotion is like water in a pond; a single grain of sand will change it." Liao distils the questions she asks in the play to "What is it that arouses my love or hate? That instigates our desire? That interferes with our line of vision? That leads us to love?" There was the expectation of the experimental and avant-garde from Meng Jinghui, "one of the most influential directors among the young vanguard of Chinese theatre and film directors in China today". There was the promise of actors with Golden Rooster Awards to their names (Liu Ye and Yuan Quan). I was ready to be dazzled, provoked and moved.
The opening scene presents a dark alley bar, the air flooded with a booming techno remix of L'Amour est un oiseau rebelle from the opera Carmen - painting a devil-may-care, erotic atmosphere. A chess competition is underway. The ragtag group of professors, bar owners, low-lifes and a middle-aged rocker possess an apocalyptic fashion sense - there are patent leather trench coats with turned-up collars, ripped black clothing, and the odd Afro. There is the sense of a society that has lost its moral bearings. A rapscallion from the streets asks if he can rent a corpse to fake his death, to evade bad debts he owes to Russians. Re-virginisation, or hymen-reconstruction services, are listed as one of the modern conveniences of this society.
The alpha male in the group is protagonist Gao Yuan, who is winning the chess competition. Played by popular film actor Liu Ye, Gao Yuan is arrogant and despotic. The group turns into submissive followers of Gao, having lost the game to him. Gao decides to orchestrate a social experiment, where he mobilises his ensemble of "intellectuals" to be his ghost writers for a torrid sex novel with no heed for artistic value. Gao's aim is to employ every cheap and sensationalist device - to fill the novel with sex and eroticism - and thus to send the novel to the top of the bestseller lists. This, to Gao, would prove the stupidity and vulgarity of audiences.
We are then shifted to the vastly different scene of a sterile hospital room, where Gao Yuan is a heart transplant patient with a way with the nurses and a profound disregard for the medical prescriptions that seek to preserve his survival. The ensemble of ghost writers break on to the stage to show Gao Yuan their drafts of the novel, which Gao Yuan has entitled "The Screams of the Sheets" or "Chuang de Jiao Han". The white infirmary turns into a den of florid hedonism as the writers recite paragraphs of titillating prose while they prance to the instrumental track of All That Jazz (again set to a techno beat). With pink Afro wigs and lime-green feather boas, it's pretty tacky business, and one wonders if Miss Roxie Hart will sue them for the ripping off her routine. The second version is a clumsy rap exposition with the street edginess of a Mariah Carey music video. The third version harks to traditional Chinese recitation, but with heady, sexed-up readings of Tang poetry - Tu Fu's Chun Xiao and Li Bai's Chuang Qian Ming Yue Guang (instead of "yi shi di shang shuang" it was "chuang xia xie liang shuang", and instead of "ye lai feng yu sheng" it was "ye lai chuang de han sheng"). These witty nuggets were the only original ideas to emerge from Amber.
It was also at this point that small clumps of people in the audience discreetly made their exits - and lucky them, as they avoided the rest of a plot played out in stereotypes.
A celebrity-wannabe, Miss Yao Yaoyao (Zhang Tong), pretends to be the libidinous, nymphomaniac author of 'The Screams of the Sheets'. She gives a salacious press interview, teasing the media with snippets about her sexual appetite and encounters. Book sales soar. However, Gao Yuan's plan is exposed prematurely - before the book hits the bestseller lists. He stages a pre-emptive press interview to explain the social experiment to the public, but his reign is over and he falls into a coma.
Amber is clearly trying to make a statement against the use of sex as a marketing technique and the audiences who lap it up. Although this may be a fresh and relevant issue in contemporary China today, the theme is familiar to audiences of many developed countries which have experienced some tension between the values of modernity and tradition during the early stages of economic development. To these relatively sophisticated audiences who have had a head start in exploring these issues, what Amber did merely touched the outermost veneer of a complex and interesting phenomenon.
Artistically, Meng simply showed the audience how the affair of the best-selling but artistically mediocre sex novel might be played out, without much deeper thought about its underlying causes - such as perhaps the development of a consumerist capitalism, or the sexual repression of the masses. The related themes of the commodification of art and the critique of the masses were barely explored. Instead, Meng presented us with over-the-top, post-apocalyptical tableaux better suited to a tale of a cataclysmic moral collapse of the world, not a woolly social commentary which is eventually swept under the carpet for a happy union of the two lead actors. Lacking coherent messages and ideas, the play's multimedia spectacle - looming structures on which monochromatic images of faces were flashed - became a pretentious, meaningless gesture.
The second plot, which explores Gao Yuan's love affair, is slightly less challenging to stage (and watch). Quite simply, Shen Xiaoyou (Yuan Quan), the girlfriend of Gao Yuan's heart donor, is stalking her dead beloved's organ. Gao Yuan mends his philanderer ways and falls in love with the moody and eccentric Xiaoyou, while Xiaoyou starts to appreciate Gao Yuan for more than just a container for the heart that she loves. There are some nice moments, such as when Gao Yuan struggles with the ego-denting notion that Xiaoyou only loves the heart that he is using. Xiaoyou displays her vulnerability as she undergoes an inner struggle where she refuses to allow herself to love Gao Yuan as a person, because that would be betraying her departed boyfriend.
However, Liao's exploration of love, desire and sex, stops frustratingly short of any depth. Xiaoyou's first "seduction" of Gao Yuan involves her telling him a long folk tale about reunions and chrysanthemums, but this only gives him the creeps. It is Xiaoyou's coy will-she-or-won't-she attitude that Gao Yuan is enticed by (and we later find out that she did). There is a hint of psychological illness in Xiaoyou - her depression, past anorexia and obsession with her dead boyfriend are documented in a filmlet - but this is thrown out with the happy conclusion that Xiaoyou really loves Gao Yuan. Xiaoyou is accused of using her dead boyfriend as an excuse to enjoy Gao Yuan's physical attractiveness, but that smidgen of tension between love and lust is brushed aside as it is concluded that Xiaoyou (surprise!) really loves Gao.
There is, however, little chemistry between the pair to make this love convincing. Gao Yuan is android-like when it comes to emotions - which is the fault of both the script and the actor. Plagued by clichéd lines like "I can resist everything except temptation", Gao Yuan proceeds to dumb down all emotions with flat deliveries of lines like "I'm only saying that I feel unwell so that you will be concerned for me". With Gao, grand thematic statements about love, life and death lose their impact upon delivery. When Gao Yuan declares that he is incapable of experiencing love because one must be afraid of death to do so and he isn't, the statement is tossed out with such flippancy that Gao comes across as a completely dislikeable, one-dimensional character. When he does succumb to love and he asks Xiaoyou "Do you love me?" for the nth time, one relates to her silence in reply. There is little sympathy for or connection with what should have been the core character of the play.
The character of Xiaoyou seemed doomed to go down a similar path, with trite lines like "Did you ever love something so much that it hurts?" along with a random rendition of a Tori Amos-like song of anguished love. However, Yuan Quan handles the emotional range of her role better than her counterpart, Liu Ye. It is her realisation that love is something precious and eternal, like amber, that brings together somewhat the disparate threads in Amber. Xiaoyou's experience of love - losing someone, chasing a misguided notion of regaining that lost love, and finding a new love - is the closest Amber comes to sincerely examining the "complexity of human feelings".
Unfortunately, these surface hints of emotional complexity are firmly relegated to second place as the play gradually shifts its focus to the happy resolution of the romantic plot. As Xiaoyou's inner life is portrayed with a sweep of pure sentimentality, like the heroines of soap operas, there is little real substance or complexity to her character. With such flaccid characters, the climactic moment when Gao Yuan says that, because of Xiaoyou, he has learnt to be afraid of death, fails even to deliver a warm and fuzzy feeling. (The torrid sex novel plot has all but disappeared, and Gao Yuan has been roused from his coma by a love-bearing Xiaoyou.)
Moreover, the wafer-thin shreds of sincerity in Amber were flashed at the audience only rarely and with great stinginess, while a surfeit of meaningless and unnecessary scenes peppered the 140-minute performance. Some of these included: countless trite and overblown conversations; an impromptu rock gig; two karaoke moments of breaking out into song; and a dancer with long, stick-straight hair and a persistent, whiplash-inducing routine. The finale of a sentimental slide show depicting images of the couple looking pensive and in love, accompanied by Gao Yuan's crooning of a love ballad, was the final straw that anchored Amber in its one-star rating.
Upon some reflection, it seems that Amber's principal affront to audiences is its mediocrity - of concept, exposition and ideas. It is impossible for one to hate the play on first glance. After all, there are some nice mixed-media sets and a love story that ends happily. However, the shallow characters, the dialogue that flits from theme to theme, and the self-conscious dramatic gestures that don't carry substantive meaning all form the crux of the very offence that Amber spends much of its running time trying to condemn. By its own measure, Amber is a mediocre, indulgent creation which barely qualifies as theatre.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /