It is always an excitement to anticipate a show if one sees the name Ming-hang ‘SunFool’ Lau in the production team list. Mainly known as a lighting designer in Hong Kong, Mr Lau professes the knowledge on storytelling far more than most working lighting designers. His work implores the audience to reinterpret a mood of a scene or a character that speaks more than a thousand words. The last work of Mr Lau that I have seen is Theatre du Pif’s The Oedipus Project which the lighting basically makes a statement on the text without pulling back his enthusiasm for experimentation.
From what I know through Mr Lau’s work, he is a person who never tires on exploring light and shadows to exude emotions without ‘drama’ being displayed. In the past several Actors Labs and Painters Labs (curated by Theatre du Pif), Mr Lau’s presented his work which I daringly declare as the redefinition of ‘drama’, asking whether lighting already can produce dramatic sequences, a story that can be told not by the performances of actors but props illuminated by provocative lights. He is also daring enough to challenge the audience’s perception of how one reads semiotics when lighting is shown in an unconventional way, e.g. a portable LED bar held by an actor to ends up showing him as a ghostly figure.
Mr Lau never fails to surprise me with his meticulous work of imagination and enrichment. However, that only restricted to my knowledge of Mr Lau’s lighting resumé of other directors’ productions. Apart from his lighting design career, Mr Lau has his own affection for creating pop-up books, and through them to tell stories for the theatre audience. Mr. HALF Dwells… is Mr Lau’s latest work, and I finally can see his own solely conceived production.
Maybe it is because of my enthusiasm due to Mr Lau’s previous imaginative works, Mr. HALF Dwells… does not give me the impact as much as some of his previous experiments I have seen, which are also playing on telling stories through paper-cutting figures, but those are more focusing on the lighting.
Do not get me wrong. Mr. HALF Dwells… is a promising show with a good story. It tells a story of Mr. HALF, an office clerk who one day wakes up and finds himself missing his ‘other half’ in the mirror. Mr. HALF continues his normal weekday as a person without his ‘other half’. Because of this incident, Mr. HALF starts to see the city in a different way from normal. He starts to dwell with each encounter he has met, which things start to get more and more mysterious: from people looking up at the sky without knowing the reason to the 50 cents given to the boss of the tuck shop with grievances to the pantry in Mr Half’s office which is actually the sacred altar of a hidden cult among the employees. In the end, objects and animals start to talk to Mr Half, asking him to ask himself about philosophy and life, leading him talking to a vending machine at a coffee shop. The vending machine gives Mr. HALF a book at the end. A cloud reunites with his/her mother, leading to a monologue about chasing dreams, reflecting back to what has written in the book. Mr. HALF finally recollects himself about his life, his urge to dream. There, Mr. HALF’s ‘other half’ appears back in the mirror to form the whole man.
Even though Mr Lau’s literary skill is a bit too explicit to my taste, I am absolutely impressed with the framing and structure of the story, coveying a world that is familiar to us Hong Kong audience, yet it never hides its ambition of being a playscript written in the form of a magic-realistic bildungsroman (even though the lasing time in the story is only a day). It is essential to open the story with the high stake of Mr Half losing his ‘other half’ in the mirror, which is a double surrealism as Mr Half is already a man without his other half, and now his image is missing in the mirror as well. With this, Mr. HALF Dwells… establishes its foundation of being a wild fantasy.
To show surrealism in theatre is one thing, but to show it through big meticulously crafted pop-up books is another level. Because it is surrealism, Mr Lau’s vision of Hong Kong is bold and colourful without pulling back the difficult techniques of giving all-rounded layers of the sceneries in order to not only giving the audience the ‘wow’ moments but also eases us to enter his world.
Yet, I feel that the text and the pop-up books are already very profound to convey the message of recollecting one’s dream while living in this abnormal ‘normal’ city, I find myself lacking an emotional release through the whole one-hour performance. It is an enjoyable show just by seeing the pop-books, as well as the narration by Mr Lau and Hong Kong veteran theatre actress Mei-Kwan Siu. However, it seems that Mr Lau has the idea to turn the storytelling into a more elaborate theatre show, that it enlarges the scope of the piece. Once when more elements are included, I start to ask about the connections between these elements and the story itself. I would say most of these elements are not fully conceived strongly, thus leaving me a lukewarm feeling at the end.
For example, there are a lot of breaking the fourth wall in the show, yet most of those do not quite strengthen the storytelling. A warm-up session is done before the show by asking two audience members to play the game of Donkey’s Tail, as well as to ask an audience for a 50-cent coin as a prop for the storytelling. Even though the presentations are well done, these interactions seem to be artificial. Only one interaction during the office pantry scene, which requires the audience to read out their roles and purposes to conglomerate in the pantry, brings out a genuine hilarity that is close to home about the absurdity of one’s identity in the city that mainly talks about business.
Mr Lau tries to make Mr. HALF Dwells… an interactive theatre, but if so, then the interactions have to be conceived as important points for the audience to reflect on their reaction to those interactions. They do need some payoff at the end. If not, then those interactions will become obstacles for the audience to go deep into the story in one go. The audience seems to be entertained, but it just ends there.
Also, and this is my main disappointment of the show, is the scenography. As many thoughts and skills are put into the pop-up books, the stage seems to be decorated with a design that is half-baked. White paper mache boards of domestic equipment are hung above at the back of the stage, while four bottles wrapped in white paper are hung in the four corners of the performing area. Even though there is an excellent reason for those bottles to be there, as well as for the boards being hung at the back for a purpose, the execution of those sets and props is really less than flattering. That is why the lighting is also not as strong as what Mr Lau has given us previously due to the texture of the set.
No doubt Ms Siu delivers the storytelling in an utmost professional way. Her exuberant energy, as well as her humour, delight the night. Mr Lau, even though an amateur, shows his potential as an actor who really expresses charm under his thick glasses and beard. However, there is still lack of an ensemble between these two. I can tell both of them love and take care of each other so much during the show, but the ensemble vibe is still unhinged, mainly because the style of the two are quite different. It results in imbalanced energy and delivery in several scenes (mainly in the first half of the show) when they require those two to be one entity.
Because of these slips due to a bigger (but not much bigger) scope of the storytelling, I do not receive a great impact as much as those previous short creative pieces by Mr Lau, at least not as being liberated with the illusions than before. I would say, either Mr. HALF Dwells… has to be in a much bigger scope with elaborate thoughts on the theatrical elements, or it should be cleaner, and more focusing on the pop-up books, the delivery of the text (and its possible methods), and the scenography. In short, I would like to see Mr Lau’s distinctive characteristics as a theatre director printed on the stage next time.
Nonetheless, I still enjoy Mr. HALF Dwells… because it is honest escapism with tasteful dramaturgy, that it inflicts something that is purely local and colourful, but also deeply universal and soulful. The concept is still novel and ambitious, and as film critic Mark Kermode says it many times, I rather see something that is risky but does not quite hit the mark instead of seeing something that is safe and boring.
Mr. HALF Dwells… at Cattle Depot Artist Village
SunFool Lau Ming-hang Pop-up Book Storytelling Theatre Creation
Closed on 15th April 2018
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.