|Photo courtesy the Hong Kong Arts Festival.|
By JOYCE HOR-CHUNG LAU
HONG KONG — Gao Xingjian, a Nobel laureate long exiled from his native China, had just flown in from Paris. He walked into a Hong Kong performance hall and embraced the theater director Lin Zhaohua as singers and dancers milled around onstage before a final run-through of their new production.
The two men, now in their 70s (Mr. Gao is 72, Mr. Lin is 76), last worked together 30 years ago when Mr. Lin directed three of Mr. Gao’s plays — “Absolute Signal,” “Bus Stop” and “Wild Man” — in China in the 1980s.
Soon after, Mr. Gao left for France and Beijing banned performances of his works, reportedly because of references to the Tiananmen Square crackdown in one of his plays. Mr. Gao, best known for his novel “Soul Mountain,” went on to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2000. He never returned to mainland China. He also never worked again with Mr. Lin — until the Hong Kong Arts Festival commissioned a new production of the playwright’s “Of Mountains and Seas: A Tragicomedy of Gods.”
The rehearsal, a few hours before the opening last Friday, was Mr. Gao’s first glimpse of what his old friend had done with his script.
Speaking to journalists backstage, Mr. Gao said he was surprised by the result, which combines traditional arts, like the Laoqiang and Nuo forms of Chinese opera, with contemporary ballet.
A small, tidy figure with crinkly smiling eyes, Mr. Gao brushed away the inevitable questions about his relationship with Beijing.
“I have no interest in that. I’ve been away from mainland China for 24 years,” Mr. Gao said. “China is far away from my real life. My contribution to Chinese literature is finished. Now I live in the West and my concern is Europe, which is undergoing a crisis.”
He also dismissed his usual tag of writer-in-exile.
“I’m lucky to have had three lives: The first was in China; the second in exile; and the third in France,” he said. “I am a French writer with a French passport. I am a citizen of the world. For me, national borders are meaningless.”
Hong Kong, which reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997, is exempt from the censorship that bars works by Mr. Gao and others from the mainland. The fact many of the almost 300 participants at a public talk by the two men were mainland Chinese exchange students was notable.
The enthusiasm in Hong Kong — organizers said they sold nearly all tickets for the four-performance run that ended on Monday — was not unexpected. It was the Chinese University of Hong Kong that published “Of Mountains and Seas” in 1993 and staged it in 2008.
The festival, now in its 40th year, was not limited by the usual Chinese restrictions, but organizers also said they had not commissioned the work to be deliberately provocative.
“We do not seek to be controversial, nor do we present work because it is prohibited anywhere else,” said Tisa Ho, executive director of the Hong Kong Arts Festival. “We try to present work of value, in artistic terms and in terms of understanding the human condition.”
“What is controversial in one time and space may not be so in another,” she added.
Organizers said they did not yet know whether the show would tour after its run here, either in China or anywhere else.
According to Mr. Gao, the 2012 production is the first time in more than two decades that a mainland Chinese cast and crew have performed one of his works.
Mr. Lin worked with the Shaanxi Huayin Laoqiang Troupe, who specialize in an opera form found in an interior Chinese province, and Beijing Dance Theater, the nation’s pre-eminent contemporary dance group.
“Of Mountains and Seas” is an irreverent retelling of “Shanhaijing,” an ancient text that includes the classic Chinese creation myth.
Nu Wa, a wailing banshee of a goddess, expels the first humans from her bowels. They are a dirty, noisy, vulgar lot, dressed in rough canvas clothes, with distorted masks held over their faces. They fight and dance and copulate, to bear even more dusty offspring.
Local viewers would recognize elements from Chinese mythology: The handsome Yi the Archer shoots down 9 of the 10 suns scorching the earth. His wife, the lovely Chang E, wishes for immortality and rises up to the moon, in a legend still celebrated during the Mid-Autumn Festival.
There is a universality to the symbolism: the flawed woman eating the forbidden fruit, the punishing deluge cleansing the bickering mortals below, a god who becomes a civilization’s first emperor.
Because of Mr. Gao’s background, there is the temptation to look for political overtones. Surely, the gods lording it over the common man can be drunken, vengeful, petty, power hungry and self-absorbed. Deities are portrayed with larger-than-life figures topped with oversize masks. The frustration of being a lone individual going against the grain is depicted by a decapitated man jumping around in vain while a mean-spirited crowd plays keep-away with his head, represented by a basketball.
But “Of Mountains and Seas” should not be viewed too literally. Mr. Gao is a well-known absurdist, and Mr. Lin an experimentalist. Their collaboration is as fragmented, confused and chaotic as one would imagine the beginnings of humankind to be.
An audience struggling to follow the plot would be well advised to listen to the master of ceremonies, a grinning peasant who bangs on a gong and reminds everyone to just sit back and enjoy the show.
And what a variety show it is, with powerful singing, elegant dance moves and acrobatic fight scenes. The Shaanxi Province troupe adds grit and humor, while the modern ballet — choreographed beautifully by Wang Yuanyuan — adds finesse.
None of the performers are professional stage actors in the usual sense.
“It’s not a conventional play, and it shouldn’t have conventional acting either,” Mr. Lin said.
The elderly opera singers have a loose, natural style more suited to a village festival than the rather formal Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.
The most remarkable scene features colorful, gorgeously crafted, whimsical shadow puppets. The actors sit cross-legged on the edge of the stage, making the audience feel as if it is actually watching the show in some anonymous, timeless village.
“It’s strange seeing this play on stage,” Mr. Lin said. “It would be better to have it outdoors.”
Zhou Wenjia contributed reporting.