Picture by Esplanade, Theatres by the Bay
A multi-media performance – The Outcast General
China, Hong Kong
4 Feb 06, Fri – Sat, 8pm, Esplanade Theatre Studio
By Audrey Wong
Watching The Outcast General felt a little like watching a checklist of the essential elements for a piece of ‘contemporary cutting-edge theatre’.
1. Deconstruct a traditional performance form (or least, break down its elements and attempt to analyse the form).
2. A high degree of self-reflexivity: the work must comment on the artifice of theatre. It can do so by drawing attention to the performer’s activity of ‘performing’ a role, as The Outcast General does.
3. Narrative is replaced by ‘repetition with variation’. The performance progresses as a series of movements or scenes, which in the case of The Outcast General, is indicated through performers’ entrances and exits (this has a clear parallel with the performance structure of Chinese opera, where characters’ entrances and exits are highly-marked through gesture, music or percussion). The repetition in The Outcast General is the performers’ repetition of gestures and actions, as well as the repetition of the text which is seen only as projection (the performance is entirely non-verbal).
4. Which brings us to Text. Text is foregrounded as a key formal element of the work, drawing the audience’s attention to the slippery nature of words, language, and therefore throwing suspicion on all humanity’s accepted ways of making meaning out of this world. And of course, making us conscious of our postmodern condition. In The Outcast General, text functions as another performer or actor. Its presence as words – both English and Chinese – carefully projected in distinctive arrangements of lines, sentences, words, becomes powerful, insisting on its role in influencing how we receive and understand the work. The text practically interacts with the human performers on stage. More of this later.
5. Then there is a minimalist design aesthetic. The Outcast General opts, as it rightly should, for a simple staging that recalls the basics of Chinese opera, whose traditional basic set is two entrances, a playing area, one table and two chairs. The Outcast General begins by having a clear division between a playing area and ‘off stage’ – where the playing area is a raised platform that could be lit from below in changing colours (nice bit of design detail), though of course, in this work, anywhere below this platform is still part of the performance field. There is no set, only a large projection screen. When the performance begins, there is an actor on a chair, being very still on one side of the platform. Later there are light changes, and plenty of cloth all over the entire performance area.
6. Technical expertise and the integration of technical elements into the form and content of the work. Apart from the sharp and concise use of video projection, the production also at one point draws the audience’s attention to themselves as viewers (and asking them to therefore watch themselves), when all the lights come on, including two rows of fluorescent tubes above the house – fluorescent, of course, being a very clinical type of light.
7. Emphasis on gestures and actions, rather than the playing out of scenes, characters, situations. Attention is drawn to the process of making meaning or receiving meaning – the semiotics of theatre – by emphasizing the process of signification.
One could go on and on, I suppose, but you can proceed to make out your own list. The main point is that in this type of theatre, there is a high degree of the abstract, of theory, and the audience has to ‘read’ the unfolding action on stage in order to unpack the signs presented before him/her.
I started to make out this list maybe about 15 or 20 minutes into the performance. Then I started feeling slightly disturbed: if I can make out a list, how far is this performance from being a caricature of a ‘model contemporary cutting-edge piece of theatre’ and how easily could it be parodied? As we know, anything that takes itself too seriously runs the risk of being parodied. If I can make such a list, then what is the point of watching this performance because a list suggests predictability? And is this type of theatre at risk of being passé before it’s even been accepted by the mainstream?
And a final question: perhaps the performance intended for me to make such a list and is fully aware of all these other questions it is engendering in the minds of audiences like myself?
And so the question turns back on itself. Classic postmodernist twist.
The process of understanding and cognition are central to The Outcast General. This is signaled interestingly in the opening few minutes: the verse from the opera that the performance anchors itself on is projected line by line on the screen. We attempt to unpack the meaning, line by line: “my insides aflame with fury” goes one line. What are we to make of it? Then, after the final line is projected, the verse is projected in its entirety, almost like a poem – we read it, see the lines in immediate relationship to one another and suddenly we are made aware that we may have just encountered two different cognitive processes. Fundamentally, we are forced to interpret the performance through codes of different orders: reading text, watching actions, and reflecting these through our understanding of theatre history and forms. We have read different languages – and for Chinese and English readers, this is literally true as one could read the text in both languages . . . my response to the Chinese text was slightly different …
Time to take a step back and describe The Outcast General a little more. The work uses a particular scene and a particular verse from a famous Peking Opera, about a general in the Sung army fighting under Yue Fei, who is inexplicably taken out of the frontline and sent to guard the banner instead. Feeling slighted and furious, the general sees the enemy (the Jin army) advancing. With his blood rising, he abandons his post and throws himself at the Jin army, with a predictably tragic result. The Chinese title of the opera (and this performance) – Tie Hua Che – refers to the general’s fight with the war carriages of the Jin as they throw their war machinery at him.
The programme notes explain that this work is part of a larger project that Zuni has embarked on, of research into traditional Asian performance forms. The deconstruction of Peking opera, the most classic of Chinese theatrical forms, is deliberate, and the performance does this by stripping the actor of all elements except – himself. There are no operatic music, singing, percussion, elaborate costume, or set. Only once does the actor appear in an approximation of a traditional warrior costume. The actor in the performance enacts his attempt to interpret the role of the Outcast General: the text expressly describes the actor’s task and responsibility of attempting to understand the context, the history, of the story; the emotion; and the theatrical form itself. For Chinese opera, the attempt to understand form is urgent today because of the onslaught of popular culture which threatens to relegate opera to the status of historical relic.
Can the gestures of opera and the form exist by themselves, without the music, story, and the other elements? Are they meaningful as gestures and movements? Are they meaningful as things of beauty? The actor in The Outcast General forces us to ponder this question as he enacts a series of gestures over and over again – to the apparently incongruous strains of a Western classical piece of music. These gestures tell stories, enact scenarios. In traditional opera, they ought to tell us what we need to know of the character. Here, removed from the opera performance context, they become almost like abstract dance gestures. Later, as two other performers begin to lay white cloth all over the stage area, the opera actor reappears in ordinary clothes and begins to ‘walk the stage’ in the manner of an actor testing a stage that he is on for the first time, then enacting the series of warrior moves again.
Finally, the actor appears stripped – naked. The ultimate statement of the performer’s challenge: all you have is yourself and your body to perform your role.
The final section of the performance follows the lines of repetition with variation: the naked performer carrying his chair while another performer places and moves chairs across the stage. All the while, a ‘live’ video feed of the stage activity is projected on the screen, but the performers’ figures are frozen at different stages so that the final screen image is of multiple performers – the classic expression of the problem of identity in these postmodern times. All identities are multiple and can be endlessly replicated. The mirror we look in is infinite. The projected text might note at this point that “practicing Prajna Paramita”, the mind reaches nirvana, but for us trapped in this mortal coil, we know that the zen-like state is hard to reach. Unless nirvana is precisely this awareness of endless replication.
One has to say that The Outcast General is an intellectual exercise. For this reviewer, the clinical approach of this production leaves me wanting to experience a theatre production that had a more passionate emotional core. The clinical deconstruction of the Peking opera stands in sharp contrast to the extreme emotions expressed by the choice of words in the verse that is sung by the general. His “insides are aflame with fury”, “his eyeballs are bursting with blood” and he is “like a dragon stripped and stranded” helplessly watching the Jin army overrun his beloved country “like crows [taking] over the nest of the phoenix”. I miss seeing the unshackled outpouring of fury and passion. I would like more of contemporary theatre to acknowledge passion and emotion, and bear witness to human desire, aspiration and failing, but without sacrificing intellectual content.
– end –
Audrey Wong’s day job is Artistic Co-director of The Substation. She has taught at NUS’ Theatre Studies programme, is a member of the Theatre Panel of the Singapore Arts Festival Advisory Committee, and is a founder-member of Magdalena (Singapore). She has been sacrificing the movies for the theatre, and suspects that this will undermine her mental health soon.