The Phantoms of the Opera
You won't hear this from me very often: I don't know what I'm talking about. Although it is not quite fair to say I know absolutely nothing about Chinese opera (I recently attended a Cantonese opera performance with my friend, an aficionado), it is entirely fair to say that I trebled my knowledge of Chinese opera by reading the programme for Spirits. Why, then, am I reviewing it? What can I possibly have to say about it that will be intelligent or valid? Well, for one thing, the fact that the programme was so informative indicates that Toy Factory was expecting some of the people in the audience to be Chinese opera virgins (which proved to be the case on the night) so at least I get to speak for the great unwashed. And, as well as this, Spirits was by no means a traditional, purist work - it incorporated jazz and electronic music, modern choreography, and, most interestingly for me, director Goh Boon Teck's strikingly rich visuals. About these I hope I can waffle quite convincingly. (I'll attempt to talk about the traditional elements as well, but I really shouldn't be taken seriously.)
Spirits endeavours to tell the stories of five of Chinese history's most infamous femmes fatales - Bao Shi, Sai Jin Hua, Lu Hou, Yu Xuan Ji and Ke Shi - women who, between them, are accused of destroying empires, mutilating concubines, beating servants to death, committing infanticide and torturing prostitutes. Each of these stories, which are told in chronological order, is presented in a different style of Chinese opera (Li Yuan, Peking, Yue, Huangmei and Yu respectively), and each of the protagonists is played, not by a woman as you might expect, but by a Nan Dan, a male actor who impersonates a female.
This gender-bending set-up may be traditional in Chinese opera, but in contemporary theatre - especially the kind of consciously experimental theatre that Spirits clearly is - it primes us for what is usually referred to as "a (post-) feminist re-imagining" of the stories. Through the women's being played by male actors we see that femininity is a construct - a role played by people throughout history, whether willingly or not - and we hope to learn what playing that role entailed. What lines were written for women to say? What narratives were available to them? How big was their stage?
When you combine this with the fact that the women portrayed in Spirits are all notorious murderers, torturers or otherwise reviled individuals, the Nan Dan performance style raises some specific questions: what forces were scripting these women's wicked behaviour; and was it, in fact, men who were holding the pen that wrote both their lives and the historical records of them?
I'm not sure that playwright Koh Teng Liang's script provided answers to these questions. His script took the form of five soliloquies, one for each of the femmes fatales, in which they shared their thoughts, plans and memories with the audience, framed by occasional commentary from male narrators. The writing was pretty in places, and it was detailed enough to describe how the women were feeling at any given point, but it glossed over their motivations and stopped well short of explaining why they committed their crimes. All the writing seemed to do in this regard was make broad, repetitive and politically regressive hints, so that by the end of the night I had become tired of the implication that if you lock a woman up in an ivory tower, she'll start killing people - an implication which sounds a lot like the misogynistic historicising I had assumed this production was trying to escape.
But the weakness of the script didn't matter much because the majority of the storytelling in this production was done not by the writer, but by the interaction between the director, the performers and the musicians.
Lin Shao Ling, playing Bao Shi, the Zhou Dynasty beauty said to be a reincarnated lizard, displayed incredible facial projection and a rich voice, radiating his pain and his stoical denial of it all the way to the back of the auditorium. He played the part with an almost forced sense of grace: his arm movements were poised and elegant, but his feet were sometimes cloddish, making him look like he was always ready to fall, as if the veneer of perfection he had created was cracking, determined though he be to preserve it. Lin's performance gave the impression that his character was besieged by outside forces and he was desperately pushing back with all his will, but he was determined not to let anyone know how hard it was for him.
Director Goh brought the best out of Lin's qualities in two effective scenes. In the first, he placed the character in a kind of wushu disco - fast, heavy percussion, a pseudo-glitter-ball effect and lightning-fast dancers - which was so frenzied that Lin could barely keep up, accentuating his vulnerability. And in the second, he used two hydraulic platforms on the left of his otherwise spare set to raise two dancers high into the air, where they used mirrors to reflect beams of light from the lighting rig on to the smoky stage and into the audience. The piercing, male shafts of light the dancers wielded, coupled with the stormy soundscape the musicians were creating, represented the authority of the gods - patriarchal, implacable, uncaring - that this lone woman was attempting to resist. It was a wonderful, rich moment.
In the second piece of the night, Qing Zhan Bao played Lu Hou, the Han Dynasty empress with a penchant for scooping her rivals' eyes out. Whereas in the first piece, Lin had been ready to fall, Qing was always ready to rise, or rather to pounce. His was a stalking, coiled performance with cruel eyes and a coldly distancing expression. His voice was cold and distancing too, but it was also thinner, weaker and more obviously a forced male falsetto than Lin's had been. Again, Goh used all these traits to his advantage.
Goh showed us a character who had been dealt the wrong hand by fate - someone who should have played a man's role but who was instead forced to play a woman's role for which she was utterly unsuited, a role which embittered and exhausted her. He showed this by placing Qing at the centre of a tightly choreographed fight scene where he/she is attacked by martial artists and repels them clinically with a sword. During the fight's few moments of stillness, Qing holds the sword aloft in an unmistakably phallic gesture, relishing the male power that it bestows, but at the end, when the assailants have been dispatched, we see that the sword has cut him/her too with the knowledge of what he/she can never truly be: a man.
The music adds to this impression with Timothy O'Dwyer's jazz saxophone bringing something smoky, elegiac and alcoholic to the tableau, helping us see how long and hopelessly Qing has pursued the unattainable. Again, the synthesis of acting, direction and music tell a much richer narrative than does the script.
Ou Yang Bing Wen played the third of the five women, a Tang Dynasty poet called Yu Xuan Ji who beat one of her maids to death while disciplining her. Ou portrayed the character as a coquettish nymph floating around with her feet barely touching the ground and her head very definitely in the clouds. Playwright Koh filled her lines with sugary pastoral imagery, and the musicians gave her a soundtrack that resembled a bad Cantopop ballad, replete with saccharine vocals and a distressing surfeit of tinkling chimes in the percussion. I spent a long time wondering whether this overwrought frippery was ironically intended, finally deciding that it was indeed a spoof when Ou was presented with a gossamer cape trimmed with a fuchsia boa.
Once I knew it wasn't meant to be taken seriously, I found the scene delicious, with Ou's performance striking exactly the right note of simpering allure. But this didn't last. Goh had set up the first part of the scene as a contrast to the darker second part, where Ou's life begins to fall apart and he/she doesn't know how to deal with it. What was wonderful about this second part was that even when his character had been condemned to death for maid-beating, Ou kept a lot of the affected coquettishness in his performance, refusing to relinquish his superficiality even when it had become utterly inappropriate. It felt like the band playing as the Titanic went down. Only at the very end did Ou surrender to fate when he performed a san fah, a traditional operatic set piece in which the character twirls his or her her hair round and round like the blade of a fan. The san fah is supposed to symbolise distress, frustration and hopelessness, and it is to Ou's credit that he was able to transmit such emotions with clarity through such an abstract, codified action.
After this excellent third story, it began to feel like the production was running out of steam slightly: Goh appeared to have used most of his best ideas already and Koh's script was just spinning variations on a well-established theme. But this was still a quality product, as Ma Zi Jun's subtle, self-deflecting performance proved. Ma played Ke Shi, the emperor's trusted nanny who abused her position to further the ambitions of a eunuch she loved. Ma's performance resembled a dancing figurine atop a music box that had remained unopened for centuries; it evoked innocence locked away too long, childish delight and incomprehension in an old woman. This stood in marked contrast to the scripted version of the character, which showed her to be a lustful schemer, but the script and the staging of Spirits rarely had much in common, and it seemed best in this scene to treat them as independent documents. Goh tried to jazz up the scene by introducing dancers holding industrial strimmers, but while this had an initial shock value, I'm not convinced it added anything meaningful.
And finally we had the story of Sai Jing Hua, a Qing Dynasty prostitute who married an ambassador and ended up torturing young prostitutes. Lin Jia played the character with a performance that, to my untrained eyes, appeared to be the weakest of the night. Unlike the other actors, Lin's performance was prosaic, and it seemed to be aimed at unseen TV cameras rather than the live audience. The direction and the music located Lin in a militaristic cabaret - a bluesy, sexy, pre-war Berlin-ish place in which it was clear that something very, very bad was about to happen. This setting/mood may have been anachronistic but it was by far the strongest element of this last segment, which was otherwise retreading old ground.
Apparently, Goh had originally wanted to tell eight stories instead of five, but he couldn't get enough performers. I'm glad he stuck at five, and in fact, I'd probably have preferred four. But this may well be because I am unaccustomed to the ways of Chinese opera, and particularly the glacial pace at which lines are delivered, so perhaps people who know and love the art form thought it was just right. Still, opera lover or not, there was plenty to see, hear and think about in this aesthetically dense and polished production, and it has made me want to find out more about the traditions that birthed it.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /