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Huayi 2018: Why We Chat? (聊斋) by Edward Lam Dance Theatre (Review)

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Finding love in a hopeless place, with a side of ghosts, graves and a long list of ex-lovers.

In Why We Chat?, director Edward Lam and writer Wong Wing Sze reimagine Pu Songling’s classic Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio (聊斋志异) for the times, taking inspiration from its supernatural themes and crafting an all new story about the contemporary horrors of feeling completely, utterly alone within the modern world.

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Why We Chat? takes place in the liminal space of a strange hotel, as writer Mr Pu (David Wang) attempts to gather his thoughts for a night. A one time critically acclaimed novelist, Pu never quite found the same success again, and instead writes a chatbot app where users would be able to converse with digitally crafted women. But as he himself uses the app, he becomes increasingly obsessed with Ms Hu (Sylvia Chang), who seems to know him far better than he knows himself. Who exactly is Ms Hu, and what is her true relationship with Mr Pu?

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Edward Lam makes full use of both David Wang and Sylvia Chang’s screen stardom as he opens the play with twin screens showcasing prerecorded scenes of the two actors (in character) ‘conversing’ with each other to represent the way Mr Pu uses the app. Exquisitely filmed, these scenes are only the first instance of many introspective moments and wry humour that characterise the play, as Ms Hu unnerves Mr Pu with her deeply personal questions, coming back again and again like an unsatisfied revenant even as Pu attempts to change bots. There is something almost cinematic in the way Why We Chat? plays out, oscillating between big dramatic scenes, laugh out loud interludes and quiet yet equally impactful moments of respite. In terms of movement, Lam Chun Hoe Ivanhoe has choreographed characters to move like water, and the way they elegantly slip in and out of scenes feels almost otherworldly. 

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Each act of Why We Chat? takes place from the perspective of one half of this mysterious couple. In the first, we follow Mr Pu as he unsuccessfully tries to check into the hotel, encountering fiendish front desk staff, a spa filled with succubi and even a blood-soaked room where a guest attempted to commit suicide. As Pu’s frustration grows with the increasingly absurd situation, it is his inner demons that truly wind up perturbing him, as he recalls the many affairs with women he has in his life, from his dulled interest in his current wife to a young journalist he leads on (expertly played by Rebecca Yip, whose manic energy shifts from aghast to simpering in seconds). But above all, it is his ex-wife (revealed to be Ms Hu) and their shared tragedies that continue to haunt him, leaving him uncertain and lost in her absence.

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Mr Pu’s plight becomes immensely relatable in the hands of David Wang, who plays the character with both a devilish charm and haplessness that leaves him completely vulnerable to the cards fate deals him. One feels powerless as we watch him grapple with one disappointment after another, each leaving him more hollow than the last, and there is a mutual understanding Wang creates that leave us sympathetic for him as a victim of circumstance. Part of Wang’s success though lies in his unparalleled onstage chemistry with Sylvia Chang, whose role here pushes her to the very limits of her acting capabilities. At times a stoic, spectral presence and at others a broken, grieving flesh-and-blood woman, Chang’s performance only further proves that she is one of the greatest actors of her generation.

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Chang eventually takes centrestage in the second act, as the action shifts to that of Ms Hu. Exuding a markedly different mood, the second act feels more like a redemption arc for the couple rather than the pensive reflection of the first, though still chock full of the same absurd humour and strange, wonderland like odyssey through the world these characters inhabit. Ms Hu becomes an unexpected heroine as she navigates pitfalls like her crazy ex-boyfriend (Hugh Shih, who manages to blend over the top comedy and true madness into a single character) and guilt and shame over her failures as a wife, rising to save her ex-husband and finishing Why We Chat? on a happy note, if a little dragged out towards the end.

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As it becomes increasingly removed from its absurd elements in the second act, it is clear that Why We Chat? is a story about the transformative power of love and introspection. In viewing both Mr Pu and Ms Hu’s time away from each other, we become privy to their darkest fears and greatest regrets, a reminder that there are times every couple needs some distance to gain clarity and clear the metaphorical fog and demons that reside in their heads and hearts, evident from the change in mood and faster pace of the second half.

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Why We Chat? possesses incredible production value, with a simple but well-executed set design of a gorgeous, metamorphosing hotel room by Wong Yat Kwan Jonathan, supported by slick multimedia visuals from John Wong (@DONTBELIEVEINSTYLE). Chan Chuek Wah Billy’s lighting is precisely designed, playing with elements such as creating patterned shadows and using swinging incandescent lightbulbs to warp the space. Chen Chien Chi’s original compositions and Chung Chak Ming’s sound design are strong companions to the onstage action, with corrupted versions of wedding marches foreshadowing disaster and a piano driven score that forges an immediate emotional connection with the equally dramatic scenes at hand. 

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Ultimately, Why We Chat? answers its own eponymous question – we chat because we seek some form of genuine connection amidst all the absurd struggles the world throws at us, a means for us to reach out and reassure us that we’re not completely alone. Through the fever dream-like journey Why We Chat? takes us through, Edward Lam leaves powerful social commentary on the enigma that is modern love, and we’re left knowing that even at the end of days, when we think we’ve screwed it all up, love lives on in the purest of forms, seeing us through even in the depths of our despair. 

Photos by Jack Yam, Courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Performance attended 1/3/18

Why We Chat? plays at the Esplanade Theatre as part of Huayi 2018 from 1st – 4th March. Tickets available from the Esplanade

 

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