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The pain of youth

(Global Times)

08:28, July 30, 2013

A scene from What is Success? Photo: Courtesy of Beijing Magique Culture

For audiences that have seen Sherlock Holmes tweeting or Dr Watson being played by a woman on TV, it is not so surprising to see a stage version of Sun Quan (182-252), the Wu emperor, in which he is a girl who likes playing video games.

Yes, we are at a time when almost all the famous classical works of literature have been adapted in every possible way, but it is still rare to meet a director like Edward Lam who loves to turn those characters into modern citizens.

Whether it is a Western classic such as Madame Bovary, War and Peace, or Great Expectations or a traditional Chinese story like Romance of the West Chamber, Lam always has his way of relating the situation to our daily lives.

After recreating Outlaws of the Marshes (What is Man?) in 2006 and A Journey to the West (What is Fantasy?) in 2007, Lam is going to bring a modern female campus version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms (What is Success?) to Chongqing, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai from August 9 to September 8.

Last Wednesday, Lam and writer Yang Zhao from Taiwan, who is also the literary consultant of What is Success?, held a talk in Beijing to discuss the relationship between the drama and what they wanted to share with the audience through the show, namely "the pain of youth."

Reality vs history

Featuring the history of Wei (220-265), Shu Han (221-263) and Wu (222-280), Romance of the Three Kingdoms is often seen as a textbook on strategy in which power, military might and fate are the key issues in a male-dominated world. Chinese audiences are very familiar with the classics - perhaps too familiar - and therefore have a collective impression of the books simply upon the mention of a name.

Watching Lam's adaptations, however, for many audiences, is a process of picking up the things they never thought about when first reading the books.

Lam likes to deconstruct many of the old images as he puts the characters into different backgrounds and wraps each play around an open question.

"If we use traditional impressions to read the classics, we will never receive new understandings. Only when using a way that takes out all the clichés can an adaptation be worthy [of the original]," said Yang. He explained that traditional Chinese novels usually follow a rule that characters never change personalities. This made it easier to tell stories in series in ancient times.

Lam's up-to-date interpretation gives new possibilities to the characters. As each character leads to a philosophical question, their relationships also break the old impression. Enemies are more like opponents.

Asking painful questions

"The most meaningful questions are those you find it hard to answer… If you find it painful to answer some of the questions but you cannot avoid them, it becomes a show that might make you a more meaningful person," said Yang who finds that it is an era where everyone likes to answer questions with a yes or no, and young people today are rushed for answers.

Wayne Ding, a script writer told the Global Times that Lam likes to ask questions in his shows, but his intention is not to immediately find answers. Instead, he offers a series of acts that lead the audience to face the confusion and contradictory nature of defining success.

"Whatever forms he uses, putting the surface aside, he is an indefatigable social observer and a critic with a feminist vision," said Ding.

"Lam is more like a philosopher who cares about social phenomenon and people's attitude toward life and the society. And he applies his observation into his dramas," said Xu Zhenzhen, 25, a regular attendee of Lam's shows.

Failure, loss & other notable things

Although Lam is originally from Hong Kong, most of his shows are in Putonghua, making it easier to communicate with audiences from Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. Also, more than half of the main actors he invites are from Taiwan, which makes him very different from other local stage directors.

The content of his shows also covers a broad range of issues that are closely related to hot topics in all parts of China.

For instance, the reason to set Three Kingdoms in a women's world is a reference to "Zhen Huan's era," as Lam calls it (referring to popular TV series The Legend of Zhen Huan, which focuses on power struggles among imperial concubines).

The invisible battle for power in the classroom and office in today's era where women are playing an increasingly important role is comparable to what happened in the corners of old palaces.

"Success has become an excuse for many women to stop thinking about who they really want to be," said Lam.

Lam finds that young people today are urged to achieve self-affirmation through success and define themselves through happiness and other mediocre feelings: Few manage to approve themselves through the process of losing, when actually it is the experience of loss that can be called "process."

"Unfortunately, 'process' is the most neglected thing in our time. To lose is important. Winning is for losing," he said.

"If you are lucky or brave enough to finally discover the one thing that makes you different from the others, it will be the most painful of things. The painful things are more likely to determine who you are," Yang added.

Lam's plays usually last three to four hours, throwing out a lot of information in one show. For ordinary audiences, it might be too heavy sometimes.

A theater critic pen named Crystal sees the long running time of Lam's shows as a result of his solid background in traditional literature in combination with his sensitivity regarding contemporary life.

"He is like a host who treats his guests with so much food that they can't even walk out of the door. However, as long as you see more of his works, you will find that he never intends to show off or be self-indulgent. He just really wants to share with the audience his observation and thoughts," she said.

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