One Hundred Years of Solitude 10.0
Since its inception 30 years ago, Zuni Icosahedron has been dividing critics with its highly idiosyncratic theatre experiments. Edmund Lee talks to founder Danny Yung ahead of the 10th edition of the group’s most iconic work.
On July 27, 1982, in the theatre of Hong Kong City Hall, a significant moment in our on-stage history took place in front of a stunned audience that is now most fondly recalled for its incessant walkouts. One Hundred Years of Solitude 1.0: Magic Caravan, a non-narrative stage experiment that was loosely inspired by Gabriel García Márquez’s eponymous novel, didn’t exactly chronicle a century of historical events, although it certainly felt that way to many.
Clocking in at a brisk three-and-a-half hours, the collective creativity project was not just another rebelliously incongruous entry featured in a drama festival that’s generally catered for shorter plays. As one of the first productions of Zuni Icosahedron – then the first experimental theatre collective in Hong Kong and now a hugely respected group about to celebrate its 30th anniversary – the production has sent unprecedented shockwaves across Hong Kong’s performing arts scene, at once attracting feverish praise for – and passionate over-interpretation of – its groundbreaking expression, as well as flat-out dismissal for merely ‘walking and standing around doing indecipherable things onstage’.
It would be a mistake, however, to label Zuni a trendsetter – if only because you’d be hard-pressed to spot their faithful disciples. “Looking back at [the 1982 show], we’re really quite trendy then, don’t you think?” asks Danny Yung, Zuni’s founder and co-artistic director, before bursting into his signature laughter. “There’s nobody else doing what we did – even today, some 30 years later. We’ve been redefining what theatre is.” For all its admirers, and despite the gradual shift in the level of accessibility from the company’s impenetrable early works to its much more engaging social and political theatre pieces in later years, Yung maintains that Zuni’s exploration into the possibilities of theatre is more important than any conventional form of audience approval.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, in this case, provides an excellent illustration of the group’s single-minded artistic pursuit. Now at its 10th edition, the repertory work repeatedly sees its (mostly amateur) performers take to the stage on the left and leave it on the right, pointing towards different directions along the way – a ritualistic cycle of movement that symbolises the one-way progression of social development, of history, and of time. “Doing a performance [of One Hundred Years] is like looking at a Chinese scroll: things just keep flowing by,” Yung reflects. “As the actors, you don’t need to look at the people in the audience because, basically, you’re not performing for them. You’re performing for yourself; you’re telling them of your own experience. It’s just that you don’t mind sharing it with them and letting them observe you.”
In the 1982 show, for instance, actors were divided into groups which were respectively modelled after certain chosen characters from the novel, with each appearing on the stage in regular intervals and sharing the spotlight with other simultaneously performing units. The subjects of solitude and forgetfulness were negotiated through ambiguous formal expressions (there could be eight or more ‘stories’ happening all at once), which had probably contributed to the now-infamous walkouts. “Personally speaking, what most impressed me about the book is the toughness that many of its characters demonstrate: they refuse to succumb to fate and keep trying to work things out,” says Yung, who wasn’t present at that historical first show, but was subsequently given a single-audience performance by the participants at Sha Tin Town Hall, upon which he re-edited the work down to a more manageable length. “Instead of focusing our effort on differentiating between the characters, we decided early on that we’d focus on the feelings the story evokes.”
Consistent with Zuni’s ongoing objective of democratising the theatre space, apart from the participation of Singaporean filmmaker Royston Tan (who’ll be contributing the video projection) and a special performance by the Suzhou-based Kun opera artist Xiao Xiangping, the upcoming 10th rendition of One Hundred Years has also arranged for 20 young people from Hong Kong to share the stage with 12 experienced theatre directors from Singapore’s Drama Box theatre company, an earlier workshop with which was the initiative behind the current production. “In my workshop [with Drama Box] last year, we talked about the Jasmine Revolution in China and the many [social] changes in Singapore. I also showed them a video in which I’ve juxtaposed footage of the Cultural Revolution with the music of Mozart, and we had a discussion afterwards. It’s a very timely moment to talk about the interrelation between culture and revolution.”
To reflect the ‘feelings and desperation’ of the present – which also happens to coincide with the centenary of China’s 1911 Revolution – this edition will also examine the various forms of ‘revolution’ that recently took place in China, Singapore, North Africa and the Middle East. “I’m not a nostalgic person. So when we deal with contemporary issues like the Jasmine Revolution, the current Middle East situation and the post-80s generation in Hong Kong, it’s because of their timeliness,” says Yung. “At the end, it’s all about what a social organisation can do.”
One Hundred Years of Solitude 10.0: Cultural Revolution 百年之孤寂10.0 – 文化大革命 is at Cultural Centre’s Grand Theatre on September 16 & 17. With Chinese and English texts. Tickets: 2734 9009; www.urbtix.hk.
Photos: 1. Magic Caravan 神奇旅程, City Hall, Theatre; CUHK, Sir Run Run Shaw Hall. 1982. 2. From a Past Event to a Prophecy 往事與流言, National Arts Hall of Taipei; Arts Centre, Shouson Theatre. 1984. 3. The Long March 長征, Ko Shan Theatre. 1985. 4. October 拾月, Sha Tin Town Hall, Auditorium. 1987. 5. The Final Stage 最後光景, Toga International Arts Festival Open Theatre, Toga Village, Fuyama, Japan. 1989. 6. Days and Nights of Abstinence 絕色, Cultural Centre, Grand Theatre. 1990. 7. Mirage 海市蜃樓, City Hall, Concert Hall; Sha Tin Town Hall, Auditorium. 1992. 8. Viva 萬歲萬歲萬萬歲, City Hall, Exhibition Hall. 1996. 9. Version 9.0 版本9.0, Cultural Theatre, Grand Theatre. 2002. 10. Danny Yung at rehearsal.