On Ibsen in One Take
The point of our magnificent OzAsia Festival is that it opens a curtain on dramatic arts and cultural expressions which perhaps are little known to the outside world. Did we know that the Chinese are passionate exponents of Ibsen? The Norwegians certainly do. The works of Heinrich Ibsen have been a force in Chinese spoken theatre for over a century and are considered the foundation of modernism on the Chinese stage.
The work, 'Ibsen in One Take', is China's cutting edge in the expression of Ibsen.
As in the extraordinary Roman Tragedies presented by the Adelaide Festival earlier this year, it is a work simultaneously performed and filmed onstage in a foreign language. Ibsen is as short as Tragedies was epic. But one could say it has a kindred spirit of sorts - certainly in the way in which it instantly carves a vivid and indelible image in mind's eye.
Ibsen in One Take is not an Ibsen play. It is a Beijing-based Norwegian playwright's impressionistic overview of Ibsen. Oda Fiskum has taken strands from plays such as The Masterbuilder and A Doll's House and woven them into a reflection on age, family and death in modern China.
Her central character is the old man who is on his death bed in hospital under the care of a fairly unsympathetic young nurse. Instantly, one is presented with the cultural parallel - the nursing home power of the young over the aged and incapacitated. Kindness is a lottery among the dependent. Pyjama-clad Tan Zongyuan fleshes out the old man, slow-moving, quiet, fatalistic, heartbreaking...
And around him on the darkened stage, the camera team quietly moving among the actors, the images of their one-take film screened aloft with the subtitles, the old man's past plays out. He is depicted as child and young man in family and work contexts. There are marital conflicts. There are tensions of father-son relationship - very strongly portrayed. There are the ambivalences of the masculine role in life alongside the emancipation of exasperated women. Shades of Nora?
There are several very moving scenes between husband and wife - and the double exposure of live performance and well-composed filmic image above serves to emphasise how accomplished are these Chinese actors.
The play is only an hour long but seems longer. It is unhurried. Director Wang Chong stretches it out both in pace and aesthetic, using every inch of the broad expanse of stage - and even beyond, to portray "the room where one doesn't go". Therein, through the camera lens, is played out a profoundly touching scene of father and son in hospital. And all the fragilities of imperfect family relationships and the impacts they have on our lives reaches forth as a human commonality.
Throughout the production, there are the tinkles and twangs of Li Yangfan's evocative score reminding us that this Ibsen is in China. And there are small special moments, encounters with cigarette, girl with umbrella, the rain from a spray bottle, keeping up appearances for the boss...
One has to pay attention, to watch the actors, to read the subtitles and to draw the associations. But it is a rewarding experience, albeit a bleak one for, in the end, as the old man reluctantly lets go, it is with the knowledge that all the efforts of understanding life are fruitless. It just is what it is.