Frankenstein

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23 July and 2 August 2014, IFC Cinema, Hong Kong of National Theatre’s 2011 production of Frankenstein

frankenstein_wombVisceral. An incredible spectacle. I suppose you wouldn’t expect any less from Danny Boyle (director of the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours and Trainspotting).

Although familiar with the characters of Frankenstein and the Creature, I’ve actually never read the play before and so was delightfully shocked at the more disturbing moments. Mary Shelley was only 18(!) when she penned the book, which is incredible considering how she managed to conjure up this story that covers some of the most timeless and significant themes of our century: genetics, the morality of science, vanity, parental responsibilities…and it was the first science fiction book where creation is not attributed to divine forces.

Victor: It speaks.
Creature: Yes, Frankenstein. It speaks.

I didn’t realise that the Creature learns to speak (which he does in the book but not in the movies). This is fundamental to the story, as it’s through his voice we learn the hypocrisy of mankind, and the morals, ethics and expectations of kindness that we uphold for others. This play showed this alternative perspective powerfully as we follow the Creature (instead of Frankenstein in the book), who gains the sympathy and empathy of the audience when it goes through the sad but inevitable transformation into its nemesis and alter ego – Frankenstein.

lightsSo many visually stunning details – hundreds of light bulbs dangling to create a canopy of lights that illuminated and flashed to Frankenstein’s electrical experiments, the incredible stage design featuring a steampunk carriage with electrical sparks, a set that would rotate and completely descend beyond view (high undercroft!), the green grass that you can hear crunch under the Creature’s feet, the stitches of the Creature and the final silhouetted image of the Creature and Frankenstein continuing their painful journey inevitably bounded together… woweee.

Compared to Coriolanus on screen, watching Frankenstein on screen actually was a plus. Although you lose the live atmosphere, the camera allowed for you to see shots you would not otherwise see – the thrilling aerial views and the intense close-ups – as Olivier Theatre is quite big.

frankenstein_150211-116When buying tickets, I couldn’t decide which version I wanted to watch (the actors swap between the roles of the Creature and of Frankenstein on a nightly basis). The actors shared Best Actor awards at the Olivier’s and London Evening Standard Awards… with Benedict Cumberbatch also scooping Best Actor at the Critics’ Circle. I was more inclined to see Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature, as I could envision him creating just the most weird and mesmerizing creature. And reviews tended to lean towards Cumberbatch as the Creature. I actually really couldn’t decide in the end and so ended seeing both versions. And I’m so glad I did. I actually preferred Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature. I felt like his character was more humble and his painful journey into becoming a man was more real, more believable (he was inspired by his two-year old kid). The way he moved was also less jarring to the eye. Benedict Cumberbatch has a natural air of arrogance and so he was very fitting for the obsessive scientist, the scientist whose mind was too advanced for this world. The man who could not bring himself to destroying the creation is most proud of, ultimately bringing down his loved ones on the way. But yes, what stunning performances from the two lead performers!

2013-10-28-Frankenstein14There were some disappointments though – some weak text, very unconvincing acting and poor character development of some of the supporting characters (Frankenstein’s bride and father!)… a shame, but it didn’t matter (much) to me. :D

The soundtrack created by Underworld was very fitting. I particularly loved ‘Dawn of Eden’, the track that accompanied the Creature’s first foray into the beautiful natural world – showing child-like innocence and the magic of discovering things for the first time. Sadly a spirit that we lose as we grow older.

Creature:
Slowly I learnt the ways of humans:
how to ruin,
how to hate,
how to debase,
how to humiliate.
And at the feet of my master I learnt the highest of human skills,
the skill no other creature owns:
I finally learnt how to lie.

Red

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red_poster_445-x-4451-326x32628 June 2013, Cityhall, Hong Kong and 12 July 2014, Esplanade, Singapore

After watching Hong Kong Repertory Theatre’s version of Red last year, I walked out really wanting to get a copy of the script. Their version was done very well but entirely in Chinese. While there were English surtitles which helped with some of the references (Dionysus, Apollo), there was so much food for thought that I wanted to develop post-show (trying to digest philosophy in Chinese is hard!). But as Hong Kong life goes… I very quickly forgot about acquiring the script, but still thought of the play fondly from time to time.

Recently, I watched Red again in Singapore by Blank Space Theatre. Although I was at first slightly apprehensive watching it in Singapore as was unsure about the actors and – sorry – accents (really wish I saw Eddie Redmayne and Alfred MoIina in the original version!), I was glad to watch it in English (and no accents!). And while inevitably I couldn’t help but compare the two productions, it reminded me why I loved the play so much.

John Logan did a brilliant job writing it (he also wrote the screeplays for Gladiator, The Aviator, Sweeney Todd and Skyfall). He threaded differing opinions about the value of art and the artist very well – differences due to personal values and perspectives, due to the changing times and trends, and due to the changing nature of the traditional master and apprentice relationship. The text did a brilliant job in developing the characters, both by revealing their past in bits and pieces, and by challenging their thoughts through debates. Plays about artists are really hard to do well – in part because the actor is ultimately imitating the successful artist and in part because the philosophies and ideas can easily come across as patronizing/snobbyish/pretentious. I can’t quite explain why it worked in Red though, but it did. Perhaps it’s because the play was about Rothko, and for him, there is no differentiation between life and art. You see how much he struggles with the monetary values placed on art and the hypocrisy of creating commissioned art. But of course this is all subjective (which is the beauty of art), as this play definitely divided the critics in London and New York.

photo6-webLots of inspiring things about the play! I thought HK Rep did a much better job in all aspects – lighting, set design, acting, atmospheric creation and costume. I particularly loved the scene where Rothko and his assistant frenziedly primed the canvas with sloshes of blood-red paint. Ethnicity of the actor regardless of the character’s ethnicity never bothers me. In fact, it adds points – like when I saw a Chinese Billy Eliiot – I love the blind-casting idea. Though obviously this isn’t blind-casting, since it’s an adaptation. Anyway, yes, the HK version – everything was a lot more real and not so staged. The Singapore’s fake nose and fake hair was taking it a step too far! And I never compliment Hong Kong City Hall, but as a space it’s better than Esplanade’s Studio Theatre.

So yes, while I still don’t have a copy of the play, at least now I have been reminded to get one. Off to hunt for it now…!

Coriolanus

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coriolanus_2768141b16 July 2014, Pacific Place Cinema, Hong Kong of Donmar’s 2013-14 production of Coriolanus

I’ve been looking for some good theatre to watch and so was excited when I found out that NTLive was airing in Hong Kong! Before this, I had actually never seen NTLive as I guess I’ve never really needed to go see it – working down the road from National Theatre for 6 years meant that I could always easily line up for day tickets if I hadn’t managed to sort out buying them in advance. And so I walked into PP’s cinema (at 10am in the morning!) telling myself that I shouldn’t compare it to live theatre, because really, you can’t. And you shouldn’t.

You can’t, because the camera just can’t capture the live atmosphere and the tension in the air. The play is obviously designed for stage, and so even with clever film cutting techniques and angles, you can’t replicate the magical moments that films-for-films can create.

And you shouldn’t, because if I’m watching NTLive, I should be accepting it for what it is – a filmed version of a live performance.

And I loved it.

Tom-Hiddleston-Coriolanus-07I was soo grateful for the opportunity to see a production I’ve heard and read a lot about. Because it is filmed, you actually get a lot more close-ups and so you catch really detailed facial expressions. They also put extra effort into topping-and-tailing the experience with intros, behind-the-scenes interviews and rehearsal clips, which gives added insight into the play and makes the experience more whole.

The main downside is that you are watching what the film director/editor has decided on – who you should be looking at, at which point and from which angle. But in a way, that’s actually quite cool because you are given a curated view. Insight into how the director envisioned it perhaps (I imagine they would have a lot of say as to how the film is cut). There were definitely sections though where I really wanted the camera to pan out so I could get a wider perspective of what was happening on stage.

_71817911_hiddleston2_bodyThese technicalities aside… the play was fantastic. Shakespeare isn’t normally my cup of tea (I’m usually still frantically scrolling through the SparkNotes on my phone as the lights dim because I find the language hard to concentrate on and follow all the way through), but this play shows that Shakespeare has been really successful at creating timeless plays – the issues that he touches on are ones that speak greatly to modern day audiences. The cast was great, in fact phenomenal, especially Tom Hiddlesford. Such a compelling actor… the intensity of his expressions and eyes – the way they really speak… Some of his expressions will remain imprinted on my memory. The scene in which water descends from above and he washes his wounds – intense! And I wonder if that is actually aided by the camera close-ups. It was also interesting seeing Deborah Findlay perform in a role that actually was reminiscent of the mother role she played at Young Vic’s The Glass Menagerie.

The set design and the lighting was fantastic too. Using really creative set design which incorporated quite a large digital element, they managed to transform Donmar’s really intimate space into an ever-changing set that went from the war zones of ancient Rome to the inner chambers and into the outside walls of the city. While the physical set and props were minimal (chairs, ladder, chains), the added effects of digital imagery and fireballs really were something.

So all in all – highly recommend NTLive! Love the National Theatre – they are so innovative and this whole series that they are doing (which isn’t limited to just their own works i.e. Coriolanus was actually Donmar’s production) are showcasing the best of British theatre and bringing their brand to the rest of the world!

McDull ‧ Sentimental Little Stories

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Hong Kong Sinfonietta: McDullWe are in an era where art forms are breaking out of their traditional boundaries; where museums, cultural centres and concerts halls are popping up all over the place, desperately calling for greater audience numbers; and where culture is increasingly being seen as a necessity, and not a luxury (yes, ooh controversial).*

It’s nice to see that some classical music orchestras, who perform what is usually regarded as one of the more stubborn art forms, have responded to our changing circumstances with great enthusiasm.

In recent years, many orchestras around the world have been running schemes to try and get new and younger faces through the doors. While some schemes fall short (think flimsy screen in the corner or sad light shows), some have taken off.

London’s Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (one of my all-time favs) has been running The Night Shift for about 7 years now. By staging short late-night concerts (occasionally at unusual places), where drinks are encouraged throughout the night, snippets from their full concert performed earlier in the evening are played with introductions given by a respected popular figure, and an after-party creates a time and place for concert-goers to document and remember the experience, OAE have really helped breakdown the stuffy stereotype of a classical music concert. Great too is that they aren’t presenting a tailor-made programme (no ‘dumbing down’ argument) though undoubtedly they schedule these nights on evenings of easier listening.

Then there’s Hong Kong Philharmonic’s 9pm Swire Denim series (whose title is clearly aimed at challenging the stereotypical dress code, but arguably ends up reinforcing it…) For these concerts, they play a light-hearted accessible programme that is nominated/voted on by their target audience of ‘urbanites and music lovers’. At the last one I went to, they even made the effort to have an after-party. Unfortunately it wasn’t within the venue grounds (a venue closing hour issue I assume), so they lost me and probably many others too. Getting audiences to stick around is hard! HK Phil also runs Swire Family concerts (great work Swire!), which are similar to the ones London Philharmonic Orchestra and Philharmonia Orchestra run. A musical petting zoo, bring your own instrument and join in segment… loved and adored by my 3-year old nephew.

But what actually prodded me to write this post is because I went to the Hong Kong Sinfonietta’s McDull ‧ Sentimental Little Stories (fantastic!) concert this past Sunday. A variety of easy-listening tunes were played in perfect sync with projected animations, together conveying ‘love is simple, love is kind’. They really managed to pick the perfect tunes and organize the music and footage such as to accentuate the ironic humour McDull cartoons have… it was awesome.

Sure, it helps that I love McDull (who doesn’t! :)), but actually HK Sinfonietta has got it right on. McDull is a Hong Kong brand that appeals to the Hong Kong sense of humour… what better way to introduce classical music to Hong Kong kids than with McDull? A particularly nice touch too was that Yip Wing-sie and members of the orchestra narrated the stories – it’s not just another concert, they truly believe in bringing music to young people. And from the looks of it, the concert was successful in achieving its aim. It brought in and captivated a young audience, who giggled and cheered throughout. Perhaps (with lots of funding), it can be adapted into a long-running format and become a must-see for all young people, local and visiting?

So the natural question here is, well which one did I enjoy the most? But actually, I think the more important question is, which series in the long run will breed a classical music attendee, a lover of symphonies, arias and concertos? Which scheme, if any, will actually change the face of the art form – both on and off stage? Hmmm.

 

*And someday soon, where hopefully being an artist or having a career in the arts is widely accepted, sustainable and encouraged!

Posted in Random Art Zine as ‘Without music, life would be a mistake’

The Weir

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8 May 2013, Donmar Warehouse, London

Group Homepage ImageThis play won the Evening Standard, Critics’ Circle and Olivier award for Best New Play in 1997. Ashamedly, I had actually never heard of the play or the playwright Conor McPherson! The playwright is regarded as one of our greatest living young playwrights.

The play is set in a pub in an isolated town. A women walks into the pub, and the men excited by this stranger start telling stories to try and impress her. But none of them can tell a story more chilling and more realistic than the one that she tells.

It was a good play, but because I had really really high expectations – it got so many 5* reviews (argh again,the reviews!!) and awards, plus the whole run is sold out – this play fell a bit short. Anyway… but the acting, wow. A strong cast who gave pitch-perfect spontaneous-like delivery.

The text is really well written. It’s actually quite different from anything I’ve seen before. No action actually takes place… the play is all about the stories that the different characters tell. It becomes all about what they say and actually more so what they don’t say. What you read between the lines.

At the post-show Q&A, they talked about why the play is called The Weir. There actually isn’t a straight answer, but apparently Conor is very lyrical with his titling. Apparently he has this other play named St. Nicholas, where the title is not because it’s about Santa (apparently, not once is he referenced), but because the play is all about giving.

The cast could not stop raving about Conor’s plays and his writing. How he is really generous with his characters. How he is a ‘writer for actors’. Even the most minor of characters is significant and has room to explore. Need to go see more of his works! Actually this is a time when I wish I did my homework before going to see the play. Think I would’ve appreciated a lot more had I known more about the playwright and this play!

By the way, have I ever mentioned that I love the Donmar? :D

An Orchestral Celebration of the Films of Leslie Cheung

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19 March 2013, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall

525308_10151332636661344_485812987_nLeslie Cheung… what an icon. I remember adoring him when I was very young (and even getting to eat dinner with him as my mum is friends with his sister!). This concert was a musical tribute to him, where the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra performed music pieces from his signature films (including Wong Kai Wai’s  東邪西毒, 春光乍洩, 阿飛正傳) and at times their music would be accompanied by film clips played on the screens behind and to the sides of the orchestra.

It was a blast from the past, though I wish I had seen more of his movies. In fact I think I had only seen one of the movies they played clips from, not that it mattered – it was nostalgic and enjoyable anyway. I particularly loved the new arrangement / re-imagination of Ashes of Time. A Chinese music instrumentalist played a handful of beautifully sounding (and odd-looking) instruments, providing a rich textured score to the vast spectacular landscapes that were being shown on screen.

Sadly they didn’t play the one song we really wanted to hear – 追. The MC, when introducing the 金枝玉葉 segment even said that during his 8 year career as a shopping mall pianist, that song was the number one most requested song across. Why didn’t they play it?

One thing they could’ve improved on was harmonizing the video with the music. It was obvious that they didn’t make any effort to do so. Sometimes the video ended 5 minutes before the music, sometimes 50 seconds before. And sometimes even after. It was a bit jarring and a shame, really, as it wouldn’t have taken much more effort.

Anyway… you know that saying that when one sense weakens, another sense(s) heightens? I tried it and it was brilliant – when I watched the film, the music became softer and when I watched the musicians, the music became louder. :D  And even though Hong Kong Cultural Centre’s Concert Hall really isn’t good for classical music, it almost didn’t matter for this concert. We were there to celebrate Leslie Cheung. I think it’s brilliant how we’re still honouring him 10 years on.

2001: A Space Odyssey

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25 June 2010, Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, London

2001-a-space-odyssey-7-1024What a way to watch one of last century’s masterpieces for the very first time.. the world premiere of 2001: A Space Odyssey to live music performed by Philharmonia Orchestra!

It was quite an experience. The dun dun dun dun dun of the opening bars of the main theme… it was so powerful, I got goosebumps. 

Playing a soundtrack live to a movie must require so much work on the conductor’s part. They have so many visual cues and have to make sure the musicians play at the perfect speed. What happens if they finish the piece before the visual element finishes? They must have some buffer music they can play… hm…   

This show was a real challenge for Southbank Centre. They weren’t able to find a copy of the movie file where the music was separated from the soundtrack (everything was recorded/put onto the same track in the old days). So Warner Brothers had to especially produce this special print just for this performance. Also, there was the challenge of balancing the volume of the orchestra with the film’s soundtrack. And also the lighting such that there was enough for the orchestra but not distracting for the film watcher. 

But what a great job they did. What a brilliant score. And what a brilliant performance.