Theatre director Ata Wong gave us a peek into rehearsals of his multilingual stage play #1314 – a deconstruction of Shakespeare’s sonnets. From morning to evening, in and out of the studio, we followed him around town trying to experience art through an artist’s eyes.
Wong recalls an afternoon in a bookshop in Paris, France. He was a student of physical theatre at École internationale de théâtre Jacques Lecoq – a prestigious school that offers a professional, intensive two-year course that emphasises the body, movement and space. He’d later become one of the few graduates of Chinese descent.
On this afternoon, his eyes were fixed on the literary work of the Bard, poetry he had a strong affection for. But with his savings all going towards high tuition fees, he could not buy the book. After all, in those days in Paris, Wong says, he could only really afford to eat fried eggs and one sausage as a side dish. But Shakespeare’s sonnets resonated deeply with him, leading him to write the romantic musical #1314.
#1314: A love story without ‘two’
Performed by the physical theatre group Theatre de la Feuille and presented by Jockey Club New Arts Power, #1314 is an avant-garde play showcasing a love story that slowly morphs into one of distrust and exasperation. A deconstruction of Shakespeare’s poetry, classic lines are read out in English, Cantonese and Mandarin and paired with physical body movements.
In Cantonese, the numbers 1314 are a pun on a Chinese phrase that means “lifelong commitment”. Wong chuckles when he explains, “it’s ironic that we always recite this phrase in a relationship – to love each other for a lifetime – but we know it’s not true.”
“It implies that there is no ‘two’ in love. You’re always alone or in a love triangle. Love is suffering.” But Wong doesn’t want to overexplain. “I prefer the audience to feel and interpret it by themselves.”
He recalls the first time he read Shakespeare’s sonnet, calling it akin to a Bible: “It is not dramatic. It is philosophical. You think the poems are about love and relationships, but actually, they’re discussing time and human nature.”
“Like animals, we’re cruel. Some systems like marriages and contracts try to confine us but fail to. That’s why we have divorces and why we break promises.”
In particular, time as a theme is a tricky one – it confuses people, making us dilapidated with selfishness and jealousy.
The body as a storm
It’s sundown. Performers, off from their full-time jobs, have returned to their beloved studio. They’re doing stretching exercises to “wake up the body”, as Wong puts it.
“The body is more honest and unhindered,” he says, “we try to use facial expressions all the time, but this is feeding the audience with the standard language. It should be a process of finding.”
Wong sees the body as an empty vessel for metaphors, holding the belief that “it can be a forest, a storm.” A storm? “When a person is in a bad mood, and he sweeps everything off the table onto the floor,” Wong says. A body transforming into other forms.
Wong’s minimalism in theatre
Wong has confidence in his way of performing art, abandoning traditional scene-setting and additional props. Is it minimalism of sort? “It’s mini but big. The big part is the profound feelings and nature of humans.”
He cites the history of arts, from realism that focused on technique and accuracy, to impressionism and surrealism that broke the old boundary of arts. Wong looks up to the great painters. “This is what I try to achieve, the biggest possible space for imagination to happen.”
He believes that art is about the process of finding, not the definitive answer. “The love story is the most difficult one to tell because everyone’s is different. Therefore, we don’t want an obvious plot. We want the text of #1314 to be as open and inclusive as it can be, to welcome the audience to invest their feelings and experiences into the artwork.”
Are we invoking The Death of the Author? Wong nods. “It’s a requirement that the audience is involved, so we can finish the artwork together.”
Theatre artworks are not as commercial in Hong Kong but Wong is not worried. He sees their mission as ‘fighting against popularity’, an opportunity to excite the audience.
Stepping out of the studio
Silence falls over the room. The #1314 rehearsal stops and everyone quietly sits down. “I can see that you are not performing. You are just doing the duty.”
Wong is a strict director. “[On the day you perform] there is a larger stage, a bigger audience. You will get distracted even more easily,” he says. Some actors stare at him, some nod their heads.
With decades of experience in theatre work immersion, Wong believes that “actors don’t have to act. All they have to do is present their real feelings. We want to go beyond drama and expose authentic experiences and sentiments.”
As the studio is far smaller than the actual stage they’ll perform on, the rehearsal moves to a nearby recreation park. A few pedestrians stop to watch. The noise of cars and trucks passing by should be distracting, but the team is fully immersed in singing and dancing.
The #1314 rehearsal doesn’t end until midnight. Wong lies on his bed in the studio, staring at the empty black ceiling. He’s not been sleeping well these days as he keeps recalling the moments of rehearsal and pondering how they can go further.
Does that bother him? Not really. “I am doing what I love,” he says.
#1314 was performed in theatres from December 24th to 26th at Sha Tin Town Hall. To learn more about Wong’s works and his company Theatre de la Feuille, click here.