Review of Shadows – The Typewriter (Hong Kong Arts Festival)
HKAF Review: Shadows (De Utvalgte)
2017-03-03 In #front page, Magazine, Theatre, by Clement Lee
Ran as part of this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Studio Theatre, Jon Fosse’s Shadows is transformed into a memorable experience. Shadows proves that a production guided with simple directions can create profound impact that can hold your breath, as long as the idea hits the heart with strength.
I have to confess that I had not picked up the name of Jon Fosse until 2015 when I attended a public lecture and demonstration of a Jon Fosse workshop convened by West Kowloon Cultural District Authority. It was after that event, showcasing Mr Fosse’s Autumn Dream and Someone is Going to Come, when I started to fully aware of his work.
The Norwegian author and playwright changed the phase of contemporary European theatre in the late 20th century, as impactful as Martin Crimp and Sarah Kane in the UK around the same period. Mr Fosse is always compared to Harold Pinter, but he also publicly said that his in uence is highly from Samuel Beckett. Bobo Fung, the resident director of Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, once addressed that Mr Fosse’s work can be described as the midway between those by Mr Pinter and Mr Beckett.
Mr Fosse’s work are highly poetic. If one reads his plays, one can see that they are written in poetry form. Stanzas are co-operated within the script, while the play still have a dramatic force with nameless characters. The stanzas and lines are short. The phrases used are simple like normal conversations, but a poetic rhythm is intact without question. Not to mention the pauses used in the plays are as important as those of Mr Pinter’s. The vast subtexts hidden within those pauses, along the repetition of lines and phrases, augment the tension between the personas. It is simple and raw, but very mature.
Shadows channels the same direction with Mr Fosse’s signatures of repetitions and pauses. However, comparing to Autumn Dream and Someone is Going to Come, Shadows is much more soulful and surreal. Without a concrete setting, Shadows showcases a conversation between six voices, which they do not know where they are during this conversation. Slowly, the audience knows that these voices are probably people who are experienced, and they probably are dead as well, since there is a part when two voices talk about seeing their father, yet he was dead already.
It is quite obvious that these voices are trapped in a space, where these old folks nally meet each other and talk. They know each other, yet they probably died in di erent times, thus they keep repeating the phrase, ‘You’re nally here.’
However, it is also this kind of repetition of various short simple phrases that the audience should soon feel the hostile and uncomfortable atmosphere among these six voices. It seems that they have nothing more to say but to repeat these phrases, as if there is a huge grief, regret, and fear among them. Even they nally meet each other in the afterlife, tension is still there. They still cannot open up themselves to each other. This is where you can see why Mr Fosse is claimed to be in uenced by Mr Beckett and Mr Pinter, when the ‘absurdity’, the failure of communication through language, comes into play.
It is the liberalism of Mr Fosse’s writing that invites multiple interpretations. We do not know the ages of these voices, as well as the place these voices are in (it seems to suggests that they are in limbo after their deaths, but it can also be just a space where time is in a vacuum). I immediately thought of Alain Resnais’s lm Last Year at Marienbad, which Alain Robbe-Grillet only produced a text for voices, and the hotel in the lm only visualises the status of where the voices are trapped.
With such concept, one would not be surprised by De Utvalgte’s production, directed by Kari Holtan, which transforms the text into a theatrical experience that is simple, but highly stimulative. The stage stands a simple design with six pebble-like masks hovering above the stage. An old man sitting at a side, waiting for the show to start. We see a clear blue sky, and ripe green trees and leaves projected on the background as well as on the masks. When the show begins, the old man rises up, and closes the black curtain at the back, covering the projection. Slowly, the leaves on the masks are gone, and a child’s face appears on one of the masks.
Yes, you probably can guess that, Mr Fosse’s play is performed by six children, whose performances are pre-recorded. For real-live performances, four elders named as ‘participants’ come out occasionally to perform. They do not speak at all, but with the staging and their actions, we can assume that they are the representations of the voices.
This production is very simple, simple to a point that everything is so organic, but immensely e ective, with beautiful scenography. The children’s performances are very honest, and the organic e ect just sits perfectly for the text. All of the children look adorable and innocent. Their deliveries on Mr Fosse’s lines are very subtle but full of nuances. One de nitely will be engaged by their performances, and slowly listens to them.
The play is about grief, desire, and fear. Having children to speak and perform these voices not only gives an interpretation that the dying or dead elders are turning into infants, but also presents the idea that human emotions and desires, even if they are produced and coated by complicated adult situations (Mr Fosse’s subtle writing suggests that these voices are in a complicated relationship of passion), are raw, direct, and most importantly, innocent in their nature, just as simple as what a child would perform.
I can see that Miss Holtan trusts the performances of the children so much, that the production does not require a lot of complicated spectacles. The elders on stage are not trained actors, thus they only do simple actions. For example, a woman helps another man to put on his coat; a woman touches another man’s shoulders; two elders sit in the middle, looking at the projection at the back while the children are speaking, etc. These images are very genuine, but because the four elders are not actors, their actions just gives weight to the theme of the play by showing real life, real emotions without acting it out. It is just beautiful to watch. It does not do much, but it works on many levels.
However, there is one motif that Miss Holtan has used in the production, that hits right at the heart of the play, which is the production’s play on shadows. The rst action, when the old man shuts the black curtain, creates a vivid image that the play starts by closing up a space, suggesting that the audience is going to enter, or descend to, a dark space. One could not omit that image wildly speaks of entering hell or afterlife. Even though there is lighting, the whole one-hour play is more or less done in the dark. The children’s faces are very bright though, which makes a huge contrasts of them being in the dark space, being in the shadows, being in a place where it exudes fear.
It is this kind of play on the theatrics that really augments the eerie images and setting in Mr Fosse’s writing. These voices do not know where they are, and when the theatre space is con ned with blackness, it gives a chilling e ect that even we the audience will question where we are. Everything is covered in blackness. The elders are not fully seen. The projections are covered by the black curtain. It hugely suggests that these images, as memories, are now not clear, as well as not being realised as bright and positive. Somehow, it re ects back to the relationships between the six voices, which their emotions are suppressed and not fully realised by each other. The uncertainty of future is there, and that fear is presented in such a borderline claustrophobic way with nearly pitch black on stage at the end. It really speaks to me as an audience.
Shadows as a result is mesmerising and breathtaking, but also heavy. It exudes lucid melancholy. The children performers give breath to Mr Fosse’s writing with honesty, and with such strong directions of subtlety, the theatrical experience is just full of impact.
Clement Lee: Graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London in MA Theatre (Applied Theatre), and earned his BA English degree at University of Central Oklahoma, Lee is a playwright, screenwriter, theatre director, acting workshop convener, and performer in Hong Kong. Lee is a researcher in heritage and immersive theatre.