Experimental theatre has long been counter-cultural and reflective. At the art form’s root, it’s born of a cultural crisis, often questioning social norms and then overtly overthrowing them. Hong Kong is due for a taste of this challenging medium as the Absolutely Fabulous Theatre Connection collaborates with Danny Yung, director of contemporary dance company Zuni Icosahedron, on Invisible Cities/Decameron, an experimental play that hits Sai Wan Ho in mid-January.
This new piece sees two vastly different Italian texts coming together as one. Writer Italo Calvino’s postmodern Invisible Cities is thrown together with 13th century classical Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. The former centres around a fictional Marco Polo and his descriptions of cities in conversation with an ageing Khublai Khan while the latter is a collection of novellas containing the stories of a group of people secluded outside Florence, trying to avoid the Black Death. It’s a huge task for the team behind the production to actually combine two such differing texts.
Yung explains: “In terms of structure, Invisible Cities talks about how people engage in dialogue, whereas Decameron explores the theme of running away and escaping to a place where the characters can tell full stories. So our mission is to find out how we can interact with these two authors and these works, and how we can have our own dialogue with what’s presented.” The production involves young artists from secondary school and university who have each honed their craft at either Aftec or Zuni. Furthermore, combining two great texts and creating an experimental, communicative effort on the stage is Yung’s signature.
The piece is an exciting opportunity for the young artists, says Aftec’s CEO, Lynn Yau. “Aftec’s young people,” she says, “rarely try this kind of abstract presentation. They don’t get a lot of chances to wrestle with such abstract ideas and questions.” But, says Yau, Yung has created plenty of opportunities for these artists to really get involved with the big questions. Eschewing scripts and narrative structure, Yung focuses on the actual stories of the young artists as they respond to the texts. “Each of them is very important,” he says. “The question is, when they have their story, can they articulate it clearly so that we can all understand the Hong Kong story as a whole?”
How are the youths responding to this call to reflect? Both Yung and Yau view themselves as facilitators rather than guides and directors. “We can’t tell these young actors how to do everything,” asserts Yung. “They have to come to the theatre and find answers for themselves.” Yung says that giving these young creatives the freedom to run with their ideas forces them to develop a certain level of introspection, which then feeds their self-confidence, meaning that some personal elements are injected into the performance. “In a way,” adds Yau, “we’re just trying to tease insight out of them.”
The end result of this experimental process is an emphasis on the questions that are raised in interpreting both Invisible Cities and Decameron by the young artists. It’s then up to the audience to consider these questions and come up with their own answers. “In the end,” says Yung, “both are Italian texts that speak from different perspectives about problems that are very close to the authors’ hearts. In any production, you start by considering constraints, such as the time, the place and the people. For instance, this is a production that takes place in Hong Kong in mid-January, when the Chief Executive campaign is in full swing, so it can carry a lot of political considerations.” Yung continues: “I’ve always thought of storytelling as a form of dialogue because there’s a speaker and a listener.” Though he mentions this in the context of Decameron’s focus on storytelling, it resounds as an invitation to the audience to engage in dialogue with themselves and
with the artists.
Yau’s previous experience with Yung’s productions hints at what we can expect between January 13 and 15. “Whenever I sit down,” says Yau, “to watch one of Danny’s productions, it’s like I’ve entered my own mind as a third party. I can watch how I’m processing and reflecting. Society is so fast paced, busy and noisy that when you enter a place where the lights are dimmed and everything is quiet, it’s a completely different world.”