Former Hongkonger Peter Suart returns with his first one-man show since 1998. Edmund Lee meets the homecoming artist.
Just when we were starting to doubt we’d ever see another one-actor show on such topics as the Holy Grail, the Holocaust, quantum mechanics and race relations, Peter Suart is back. The Jamaica-born, Hong Kong-raised artist tackled these serious subjects in a series of one-man multimedia performances titled Eternity Cabaret, between 1995 and 1998, before leaving the city in 1999. Suart – perhaps best known as the co-founder of theatrical music ensemble The Box alongside Kung Chi-shing – has since limited his presence here to the odd collaborations with Kung every other year. “I just got to the point where I strongly needed a much quieter life – which is what I have now,” he says of his home in the countryside near Outer London. “We don’t see too many people. We very rarely use the telephone. We don’t have a television.”
Living unerringly like a man about to turn 50 years old, Suart spends the majority of his time playing tennis and doing illustrations for classic fiction books. While the prospect of staging another solo work was looking increasingly distant, along comes Fragile, the fifth title in his series, which is debuting in Hong Kong this week after three June performances in Cardiff. “In the 1990s, for some reason, I did four in a row, but…” Suart pauses and the silence of dusk temporarily descends upon his rehearsal room in the LSK School of Creativity, where we have met for the interview. He then continues: “…the burden feels increasingly heavy. This time, it’s taken a tremendous amount of research, and performance is onerous. It’s physically tiring. I’m getting older now, so I can’t do it all the time.”
True to the extraordinary seriousness of the previous works, the multi-talented artist’s new show revolves around the plagues in history, which have piqued his interest for more than a decade. More specifically, Fragile casts its spotlight on the Hong Kong bubonic plague of 1894, while tying in the technological development of lenses, which brought about a golden age in microbiology at around the same period. “I heard the name [Dr Alexandre] Yersin maybe five years ago,” says Suart, referring to the French-Swiss physician who identified the plague bacillus in Hong Kong. “I thought he was Russian – and I was wrong. It just sounded Russian to me. It reminded me that when I was a boy, my father told me something about this. I suddenly remembered my father knew the story, and that interested me.”
Three years ago, Suart came across Edward Marriott’s book The Plague Race and learned the fuller stories of Yersin, Professor Shibasaburo Kitasato (Yersin’s co-discoverer of the bacillus) and the plague itself, and he decided to press on with his own research. Apart from various interviews, Suart’s investigation has taken him to both the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences and Paris’ Medical Center of Pasteur Institute. “It was the most important visit [for the research], because Dr Yersin’s papers are held there,” says Suart of his Paris trip. “They let me read them – the real letters – in my hands. That was very exciting. The letters include his reports from Hong Kong and the letters to his mother.”
Despite the grimness of his issues at hand, which will be considered in both religious and philosophical lights on top of the scientific and medical perspectives, Suart insists that he is only creating the work as an artist and not a political activist. Instead of the current epidemic diseases and the biological warfare in terrorism, which Suart has excluded from the work, he is more captivated by a curious quirk of history in the Hong Kong plague story. “The plagues have been going on for centuries and centuries and centuries, and essentially, humans were powerless.” Suart remarks on the immaculate timing of the concurrent developments in microscope technology and the germ theory. “It seems to me very, very odd that Yersin more or less just walked in, and the first chance he [had to] get hold of a body and dig out some of the flesh, he found the bacillus in his microscope – just like that.”
Suart is relating this discovery with the religious idea of ‘seeing’, although, he stresses at one point, that he has ‘no faith’. “So for me, when a plague happens – not just in humans, but in other creatures [as well] – all it is [about] is a life form, the bacillus, trying to live; and it so happens that if [the bacillus] lives, it generally does so at our expense.” So how is the atheist going to reconcile with his religious contemplation in Fragile? “I have no faith but I am genuinely interested in other people’s faith, and in the history of faith. It’s one of the most fascinating things in all of history.”
Fragile is performed at Arts Centre’s Shouson Theatre on Sep & Oct 1, in English with a little Cantonese and French. Tickets: 2734 9009; www.urbtix.hk.