Quickly emerging as one of Hong Kong's most popular playwrights, Wong Wing-sze talks to Edmund Lee ahead of the high-profile productions of Awakening and Our Best of Youth in Cambrian. Photography by Calvin Sit.
“No way! Are you crazy?” Wong Wing-sze cries out nervously after I mention that her profile seems to have risen a little every time we meet up. Truth be told, the actor-playwright is merely being modest. Her 27th script – a modern adaptation of Dream of the Red Chamber, titled Awakening – is staged this fortnight in a star-studded presentation that boasts Edward Lam as director, Wyman Wong as song lyricist, Yuri Ng as choreographer, and HOCC (Denise Ho) as the star attraction.
After that, Wong will next be seen onstage at Our Best of Youth in Cambrian, an extended, new production of her play This Happy Valley is Very Happy, which was first presented by HKRep in a shortened, black box version back in 2007. Now restaged as a Hong Kong representative at LCSD’s World Cultures Festival, the new show will revisit the Tai Hang-set stories of a bunch of tong lau residents searching for a real home to go back to.
For those who can’t get enough of Wong’s characteristic mix of wicked humour and melancholic sentiment, she will also be performing at a re-run of her critically acclaimed The Truth About Lying at next year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival. And that will pretty much be your last chance to catch the second-year MFA (playwriting) student amid her struggle to finish her graduation work and dissertation before May.
Fresh off the plane after a hectic week in Taiwan preparing for Awakening, the humbly talented playwright chats with Time Out over coffee and juice.
How did you get involved in such a high-profile project as Awakening?
Edward Lam’s producer called me back in April, saying that they’re looking for a female playwright. Since Edward hasn’t worked with Hong Kong playwrights before, and since I appear to be so reliable, they approached me. There are 12 female characters [aside from the protagonist] in the play, which fits me perfectly because I’m famous for my schizophrenic condition. [Laughs]
How did the collaboration turn out?
It began with meetings, where we scrambled to comprehend what Dream of the Red Chamber is about. Lam is a big fan of the novel, and we were not nearly his match then. After those meetings, Ho and I raced to finish the book. Ho stopped and went back to recording after some 70 chapters, but I finished it – so I’m the coolest person in the meetings now. [Laughs] We talked about the episodes that moved us the most; Ho would tell me about the parts in the book that make her bleed – Oh my! I mean to say ‘weep’! [Laughs] – and I’d develop them in the script after discussing with her.
And she’s playing [the male protagonist] Jia Baoyu?
Right. But don’t even try to ask her this question, or she’d go: [in a dramatic tone] “Of course I am! Are you implying that I should be playing [the female protagonist] Lin Daiyu?” [Laughs] In Chinese operas, this male character, who supposedly grows from age 13 to 19 in the story, is often played by a woman. Casting [Ho in the role] prevents it from turning into a dude’s story – we can now examine the human relationships in a more gender neutral way.
From Lam’s previous literary adaptations, it looks like he’s always tackling certain issues instead of merely retelling the stories. Is there such a major subject in your script?
Ho, Lam and I are like wools of three colours weaving into one scarf. Lam has actually talked to me for many, many days; let me recall what I’ve retained [from his suggestions]… [Pauses] It’s the idea of letting go despite one’s stubbornness, as well as the feeling of solitude – when a person doesn’t belong to any one place.
Solitude seems to be a popular theme in your plays; it’s also the main theme in Our Best of Youth in Cambrian.
I think it’s an unavoidable feeling. You know, my family is in the funeral business, and the [Daoist] scripture always mentions the idea about
how humans begin and end their lives alone, as if taking a walk in the park. It makes you question what our relationships really mean. Solitude is like a shadow that stands next to you, but it’s often when something goes wrong that you start to think about it. Because these moments are dramatic in themselves, they are conveniently captured by the scriptwriters.
A shortened version of the play was performed in 2007. Any interesting experiences back then?
Last time, it was really funny when the actors asked for my advice on how to crack crappy jokes. They didn’t know how to tell crappy, nonsensical jokes, and actually needed to rehearse those scenes for entire afternoons! These jokes didn’t come naturally to them, because they’re not silly people.
But these jokes came totally naturally to you.
They come very naturally to me. I breathe and grow up on crappy jokes. These are important to the play because the characters fail to solve their problems in any meaningful way. There are countless occasions where they resort to these nonsensical jokes, and the whole scenario is actually very, very sad. This group of characters are from the post-70s generation, who have been forgotten by the society – being neither [the headline-grabbing] post-80s nor the [successful] post-50s and 60s who built Hong Kong. It just so happens that they’ve missed the boat on realising their full potentials.
Awakening 賈寶玉 is performed at APA’s Lyric Theatre Oct 7-11, in Cantonese and Putonghua with Chinese surtitles; tickets: 3128 8288; www.hkticketing.com. Our Best of Youth in Cambrian 寒武紀與威士忌 is at Kwai Tsing Theatre’s Auditorium Nov 11-13, in Cantonese with English surtitles; tickets: 2734 9009; www.urbtix.hk. Wong’s award-winning play, The Truth About Lying 香港式離婚, will be re-run at APA’s Lyric Theatre Apr 19-22, 2012 as part of the 40th Hong Kong Arts Festival.