Ibsen in one take – Interview with Wang Chong
A highlight of this year’s OzAsia Festival is the Australian premiere of Chinese director Wang Chong’s Ibsen in One Take. He spoke to Peter Burdon.
You’d hardly associate an avant-garde theatre company called Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental with a restaging of the works of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in a Chinese cultural environment, but that’s precisely what director Wang Chong has done. And to great acclaim.
“I was born in China and studied at the University of Beijing,” says Wang. “But while I was growing up, and during my studies, it always seemed to me that China was missing something in its theatre. The reasons for that are complicated. They’re mainly political, of course, and censorship, and conservatism, and the cultural tendency to be obedient and to conform. But there has been a trend towards being more accepting of experimental theatre and the government is more favourable to building up cultural industries in general, so that gives us an opportunity to work more freely than might have been the case in the past.”
In playwright Oda Fiskum’s script, an old man is in a hospital, where he is dying. He is alone, with no family or friends, and he’s reflecting on his life as it slowly ebbs away. Fiskum illustrates this with quotes from Ibsen’s entire output of plays. “Culturally, the Chinese don’t go deeply into characters at a personal level,” Wang explains. “Which is one of the reasons I was really pleased when the opportunity to develop Ibsen in One Take came up, because Ibsen is all about the experience of the individual. I’d met Oda when she was studying at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, and later she was working at the Norwegian Embassy, and obviously she had strong connections in Norway. So we got talking and eventually Ibsen International commissioned the play for the project Ibsen in China 2012.”
The old man’s reflection is punctuated by memories and flashbacks of the challenges and opportunities his life has presented to him, from his childhood on. “It’s mostly about his problems,” Wang admits. “But it’s not all serious, there are some very funny moments.”
The very scenario of the play, an old man alone, is a challenge in the Chinese environment. “It’s not supposed to happen,” Wang agrees. “It’s a fundamental principle in Chinese culture that children have a responsibility to care for their elders, yet this man is divorced, and he’s been rejected by his children. And that really is happening in China nowadays, and in large numbers. Facing this is part of every society, whether you talk about it or not, and we think it’s right that we explore it. Theatre isn’t about telling you what do to or modelling the right behaviour, and we’ve gone past the time when theatre is regarded as just another form of propaganda or just a public entertainment.”
The play incorporates one of Wang’s signature techniques, that of live recording. “We call them ‘stage movies’,” Wang explains. “We have a film crew on stage and record the performance live in a single take, and project it onto a screen in real time, so the audience can watch both. It’s proved to be really effective. When you’re watching the filming, sometimes the crew gets in the way and you’ve got microphones and lights and cameras and all that. Or you can just watch the screen. Or you can watch the interplay between the two. Audiences are really positive about it.”
And every experience of Wang Chong’s theatre is unique. “That’s right,” he says. “While the cameras are there and everything is projected onto the screen, nothing is recorded. The image is lost once the performance ends.” So there is no chance to take Wang Chong’s work home on DVD. You need to see it live.
Ibsen in One Take is in the Space Theatre, September 16 & 17. Book at Bass.