Hong Kong Rep - Attempts on Her Life

Attempts on Her Life | Hong Kong Rep

July 2014 | City Hall, Hong Kong

After the last performance I reviewed by Hong Kong Repertory Theatre (Wait Until Dark) it is hard to imagine anything more different than this ambitious attempt at Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life. In contrast to the painfully conservative naturalism of Wait Until Dark, Attempts on Her Life comes across as genuinely progressive in the context of Hong Kong’s theatrical landscape.

The text is challenging and fractured; a collection of prose-poem vignettes about an elusive Anne/Ania/Annie/Annushka (etc.) who can be anything from a terrorist to a type of car. It is easy to interpret it as a criticism of the media’s power of manipulation of an image, but it is more than that. The mutliplicity of stories being told reflects the postmodernist approach to narrative, and it deconstructs the notion of identity as well as image, taking cues from Baudrillard. Further, from a postmodernist perspective, to perform this is a rejection of the need for the arc of Aristotelian drama in the theatre; an enormous step forward for Hong Kong. The programme mentions Hans-Thies Lehmann, Heiner Müller (spelt wrong), Robert Wilson, Tadeusz Kantor, Richard Schechner (spelt wrong), The Wooster Group and Forced Entertainment; it is clear that they have done their research (if not their proofreading) and their hearts are in the right place to make something innovative and postdramatic.

The audience is not quite ready for the opening; phone conversations in a complete blackout (even the surtitles are turned off). This is a good solution to the difficulty of staging this part of the text, allowing us to concentrate on the sound and the content. The woman in front, with unconscious irony, believes this is the perfect time to play with her own phone, and persists until she’s eventually tapped on the shoulder. The following scene mixes different dialects to great effect (one Mandarin speaker), and the contrasting sounds make a perfect vehicle for the text’s fragmentation of perspective.

However, unaccountably this great opening was followed by a blackout. Performers shuffle off in the dark, crew come on and move the table a couple of feet, bits of glow tape, people cough, other performers shuffle on, seat themselves, everybody is ready, lights up… I really think the people of Hong Kong have gone blackout-blind. This has become such an inherent part of their theatrical culture that they are not even aware of it any more. Perhaps it is written into the contracts of all stage crew that they must not suffer the indignity of being seen by the audience? And actors contracts state that they will not suffer the indignity of picking up tables? Perhaps the whole industry would collapse without at least fifteen minutes of blackout per show, I don’t know. But for a self-proclaimed postdramatic show to be unaware of its own automatic concession to dramatic convention is unforgivable.

The text is very open to interpretation, and Martin Crimp has said himself that he is happy for directors to interpret it in different ways (so long as they don’t shuffle the order too much) and bring out different themes. Hong Kong Rep has decided to follow Katy Mitchell’s National Theatre production in concentrating on the TV / media angle, using live feed video and large LED panel screens (from a sponsor, I believe). In fact, I must admit that the choices in this respect look like a more minimalist version of Mitchell’s setup; which works very well. The set consists mainly of the two large flat panels and a large framework box with fluorescent tubes on its axes, which is put to good use in different contexts to delineate space, lending certain scenes a gallery-like atmosphere.

One scene very successfully uses a live feed and depth of field to give us the image of a reporter in a war zone, with everything outside the camera’s line of sight left bare. Another nice moment is when the camera operators spray fake sweat onto their subjects. However, other uses of live feed are less successful, and there is not much innovation in that respect – there is a blackout, cameras are set up, actors positioned in front of them, and their faces are shown on the panels in different ways as they perform to camera. Yes, we get it; this is about the media. Futher uses of Mandarin are less clear and less poetic; the use of simplified characters in the news segment also seems to suggest they are attempting to convey a political message which doesn’t fit at all. I might as well make a criticism of news agencies in North Korea – it misses the universal point. It made sense for them to do the ‘porno’ section in Japanese; after all, that is where the porn (AV) comes from, right? (Mandarin is spoken by the porn director) Again, I felt this distracted from the whole point of the scene and ‘other’ed the performer in the same way as the very thing under criticism, putting it all at a comfortable distance.

An excellent moment of metatheatricality is afforded at the latecomer point. This follows on from a song and dance routine with cheesy popular culture references that is just about bad enough to work in the style of Forced Entertainment. The director may be aware that this is what they are trying to achieve, but the performers would do well to have a look at some of Forced Entertainment’s work to understand how to sell this style. The song finishes with them singing ‘latecomer point’ to the same tune, while the latecomers enter and the auditorium is lit with movers – it is genuinely funny and innovative for Hong Kong, but this is the only moment which really acknowledges the existence of the audience. This is strange given the theme; constant references to the ‘gaze’ of the camera, but none to the large number of real spectators?

The actors’ performances are just that; performances by actors. This is a repertory theatre, and I’m sure all of their actors want to give consistently good performances. However, if this were truly postdramatic theatre, I would be calling them performers. For the most part, they seem to be trying to play characters, to deliver dramatic monologues, and to show how good they are at doing so. I do not blame them in the slightest as this is generally exactly their job, but they need to be made aware that this particular production is not the same. The Wooster Group gets a reference in the programme – perhaps the actors would do well to read something about their performance techniques and approaches to persona and task vs. character.

Most of the ‘TV set’ pieces were very minimalist, simply quoting TV lighting and the existence of cameras, rather than attempting to recreate an actual studio set up, which is fine – we can go along with the little cameras as stand ins for the ‘media’. However, at the end they chose to replace the actors’ bow with a camcorder in a spotlight. This choice is representative of a very fundamental misunderstanding of the deconstruction of the media. It is not the camera doing the seeing, but the audience. It has never been about the camera, but about us. The camera is just a tool for some people to direct the gaze of other people. By finishing with this focus on the ‘tool’, it again gives us a comfortable distance from the real self-reflection and awareness we should be experiencing. As over-done as it is, it would have been better to have the camera pointed at the audience and displaying our faces – not this view of the back of a totally irrelevant camcorder.

All this might sound a little negative, but I am frustrated only because the production had the potential to be excellent, but failed due to some simple misunderstandings about the genre and philosophy underpinning it. With some more willingness to be self-critical and to directly address/challenge the audience I would have been more impressed. Still, it has pushed the boundaries of Hong Kong theatre, and brought something pretty new and exciting to the Hong Kong audience.

About Ivor Houlker

Ivor runs Rooftop Productions in Hong Kong, a theatre company known for multidisciplinary contemporary work. He trained as an actor at Rose Bruford College, and completed his MA in performance at Goldsmiths College, London.

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