Interview: Sandra Ng and Anthony Wong - Le Dieu du Carnage

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Big screen icons Anthony Wong and Sandra Ng take to the stage in an adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning play, Le Dieu du Carnage. They talk to Arthur Tam about standing up for their children and making the leap from cinema to theatre

How would you react if your child had their two front teeth knocked out by another kid? It’s not an easy situation to deal with and it’s up to esteemed thespians Anthony Wong Chau-sang and his co-star, onstage wife, Sandra Ng Kwan-yu to figure it out as the parents of the assaulted in their adaptation of  Le Dieu du Carnage, aka God of Carnage. A play that was so successful that Roman Polanski directed a film adaptation of the black comedy-drama, the 2011, Carnage, featuring an all-star A-list cast of John C Reilly, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and Jodie Foster.

This time around, the Dionysus Contemporary Theatre (founded by Wong and Olivia Yan) has taken the script for the modern French play and adapted it into Cantonese for an impressive run of 22 shows. So overwhelmingly was the initial response to the announcement, that three extra performances were added to the original 19.

After years as a leading lady on the big screen, comedy queen Ng makes her stage debut as Veronica, a commentator on African politics, while Wong plays Michael, a self-made wholesaler. Their child, Bruno, is beaten up by Ferdinand, whose parents are played by award-winning stage performers Olivia Yan Wing-pui and Poon Chan-leung.

The drama is seemingly about two sets of parents trying to resolve a playground scuffle between their kids in a sensible, polite and – most importantly – adult manner. What starts out as a cordial meeting at an apartment with refreshments escalates into comical, alcohol-driven chaos, where all four of the main characters are at each other’s throats. The bickering becomes less about their children and more about themselves.

In real life, Ng and Wong have been friends for years and have worked on multiple films together, but this is the first time they are starring opposite each other on stage. We sit down with the pair to talk (no holds barred) about the play and how they would react to one of their kids getting into a fight. You wouldn’t want to be on the other end of Wong’s menacing fury is what we learned. He looks angry enough when he’s calm...

What about Le Dieu du Carnage caught your attention?

Wong: We were considering another script [at the time] but we thought it was outdated.  Olivia and the team came up with this script and mentioned that it had been adapted into a film. After I watched it, I liked it and suggested cast members for the four main characters. Olivia was happy with my suggestions, so that’s how this all started.

What made you think about casting Sandra for the role?
W: We originally invited her to be cast in another drama, but it didn’t work out. And when we came up with this, I think she liked it.
Ng: Yeah, I only accepted the offer because I liked the script. Every time when I tell others that I’m involved in this drama, it seems like they’ve all heard about it before. All my friends, including those abroad and those in Hong Kong, speak highly of this play.
W: Maybe it’s because of us. We brought fame to it [chuckles].

For audiences who have never seen the play, what do you think the highlight would be?

W: Well I don’t think there’s a highlight. We’re here to create the highlight. I don’t see how this script was drastically different from the rest – it’s ‘nothing special’.
N: Why do you think that?
W: For veteran actors of a certain age, like me, who have seen hundreds and thousands of scripts? It’s difficult to say exactly how excited we are about something. It’s kind of like the excitement you get from going to Japan again after you’ve been there multiple times.
N: Well, you still have to like and choose the script.
W: True, but he’s asking whether there was anything special about the script. We’re here to make the script special. It is very much up to the [cast’s] interpretation that makes it standout. There’s a lot of outstanding scripts worldwide.

But there must be something that you like about the script.

W: It’s easy to handle. It’s a lot less complicated compared to [my 2014 production of] Equus. This time, I just want to be happy and enjoy the experience.

Sandra, how do you feel about breaking into theatre? You’re a natural onscreen, but does that translate easily on to the stage?

N: Put it this way. I have been in so many movies over the years, and I’ve always known that theatrical drama is fun but extremely time consuming. You need to devote a lot of energy to it and it requires full concentration. This is very different from shooting movies. Also, the reward is definitely not proportional to your effort. Usually, people want to use their time to maximise their income. 

This is not what I want. I want to explore different genres, experience different mediums and improve my abilities. Theatrical drama still revolves around acting, which is what I’m passionate about, but at the same time it allows me to enhance my skills.

You want to challenge yourself?
N: You can say that.

Have either of you ever experienced similar struggles as portrayed in the drama? Settling fights between your kids and other children’s parents?

W: I’d rather be bullied instead of bullying others. You can get into a lot of trouble when you bully others. I mean at least when you get bullied, you can still complain and make a big deal out of it. But if you bully someone, then you’re doomed.
N: I don’t think this would ever happen to me, since I have a daughter.
W: If it was really that bad, I would go crazy, like literally. I mean [my child] having two teeth knocked out and a swollen face – that’s pretty bad. I definitely wouldn’t even bother to settle the issue [the same way].
N: Maybe because they’re foreigners, the original characters in the play? They’ll just think it’s no big deal since it’s only a kid’s fight.
W: I’m actually pretty skeptical. I mean, even if it were only a crack on my kid’s tooth, I wouldn’t let them get away with that. If I were forced to settle the matter. I’d probably go in with a really bad attitude. And if the other party brought a lawyer, I can’t imagine how furious I would be. I’d do everything I could to make them suffer. I’d rather nothing happened. Bullying is the worst.
N: Especially nowadays, if you pick a fight, you’re definitely at fault. But in the play, the lawyer’s trying to justify the whole incident by claiming that it’s not uncommon to see kids fighting. But it’s rarely that simple.
W: It would have been in a very difficult situation. In fact, this is a very good question! We’ll have go back and contemplate on how we can reenact this
in a more natural and convincing way. Yes, this is an interesting point. I can’t wait to go back and work on the script.

Both of you have worked together numerous times before.  Is the experience different this time around?

N: It doesn’t feel any different. Anthony and I have known each other for a long time, so we know how to work with one another. The only difference is that Anthony offered a lot of constructive advice, since he’s already so established in theatre.

Do you both feel ready for the curtain to come up?
W: Right now the cast still doesn’t really know their lines inside out. We don’t actually have much time left, so I’m a bit concerned…
N: Don’t worry.
W: Why shouldn’t I be panicking? The calmer she appears, the more worried I am.
N: Why?
W: I’m naturally a control-freak.

You look steady and ready Sandra.
N: The reason why I’m not freaking out is because I don’t really know what I should be worrying about. Also, I have complete faith in my fellow actors and actresses, so
I know there’s not much I should be worried about. For them, even if they didn’t manage to put on a show that’s up to their standard, it would still be a pretty good show since they’re so experienced.
W: We’re not just trying to meet the standards. We’re trying to challenge our abilities as well.
N: Don’t worry until the very last minute.
W: I can’t, that doesn’t work for me.

Do you think there is a growing interest for stage plays in Hong Kong?

W: There’s definitely an improvement, but it’s not enough.
N: Now that I’ve stepped my foot into the scene, I’ve got to meet a lot more people from this industry. I’ve always wondered, considering the amount of people who graduate from theatrical studies, how the HK market can cope with it. I’ve been told that there’re only 50 people who are actively in the scene right now, but the number of graduates far exceeds that number. So where did they all end up?
W: Teaching.
N: And then what? I feel like it’s such a waste.
W: That’s not a fair conclusion. Not all graduates with a degree in history end up
as historians.
N: But I believe for theatre graduates
most want to act.
W: Well, there’s a lot of things that they can do.
N: Selling insurance is something…

Sandra, do you think you’ll attempt another theatrical drama after this?

N: Maybe after a few years.
W: Maybe you’ll end up creating your own production group instead of going back to shoot more movies. After all, there’s a distance between the stage and the audience so you’ll always look glamorous. Whereas for movies, imagine getting a close up... With the lighting effects and the distance,
I can guarantee you’ll look superb on stage [smiles].  

Le Dieu du Carnage Aug 6-Aug 30, Lyric Theatre, HKAPA; hkticketing.com.

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