Poon Wai Sum
Artistic Director
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An introduction to the HKRep’s 2024 – 25 Season

Decoding life’s mysteries

Probing into the secrets of our true selves

A delicate balance
From its founding, our company was established as a “repertory theatre” with balanced programming to serve the public with a diverse array of dramatic genres, satisfying different groups and aesthetic propensities. That is the HKRep’s DNA, but it also presents a problem. “By taking my brother’s side, I might forsake my sister-in-law” is a famous Cantonese slang. The ancients understand that it is hard to please both sides. Yet after more than four decades, the HKRep has built a strong and resilient foundation, able to traverse boundaries easily, finding a balance between classics and new works. In other words, the HKRep’s artistic nature is wide-ranging, never limited to one approach. Our company can enjoy the admiration of both brother and sister-in-law.
Everything has its roots
Our artistic nature may be unrestricted, but our artistic path cannot lack the orientation that grounds us. Our bearing is a focus on solid dramatic texts, whether original or adapted; the root of every production is in the text. While embarking from our roots, “the journey is hard, but we keep going forward till we reach the goal” in search of a fine play’s inner character. Extending from our roots, we expand our imagination to create something original, inventing our own norms and formulating our own “root” and style. It may appear like “a plum tree belonging to no one is in bloom”, yet “do I love the deep-red or the light-red blossoms?” Both the brother and sister-in-law can make their own selections with their own free will.
Two “in the moments”
We stage dramatic performances for our audience “in the moment”—that being a Buddhist concept used by the layman to mean “right here, right now.” According to the Buddhist vocabulary, however, the term signifies eternity or timelessness. Whether tragic or comic, we are determined to put on theatre “in the moment”, connecting with audiences on the most fundamental level as we examine the world around us. Whether bitter or sweet, we are determined to put on theatre “in the moment”, examining what is timeless and searching for life’s bearings. Throughout the ages are countless stories about human existence. Our wish is what we insist on—to light up the stage, to shine on Hong Kong, to add some colour from the Lingnan region under the vast sky of Chinese-language theatre.
Decoding the mystery
Life is filled with mysteries, many inexplicable and exhausting. Zhuangzi once wrote, “At sunrise, I rise to work; at sunset, I return to rest, enjoying life at ease between Heaven and earth; I am contented”. How wonderful! But he was Zhuangzi, a philosopher who understood the world and lived a life beyond our mortal realm. What about people like us? Some ask for their fortunes at the Wong Tai Sin Temple, others visit Che Kung Temple in search of blessings: that all can work. But we believe in theatre. Theatre cannot decipher snippets of fortune-telling cards, but good theatre can decode life’s mysteries, providing metaphors between the lines as we find our true selves on stage amidst lights and shadows. When a play ends, we leave the theatre, and a new life begins.
Goddess of Mercy sprinkles water
In May when pomegranates are in bloom, we invite the timeless Bonni Chan to launch our new season. Why timeless? Acquaintances of Bonni all know her passion and approach to theatre. We’ve been in awe of her from her debut in the late 1980s to the present day: she is steadfast as a rock and resilient as the Goddess of Mercy. I asked her, “What do you want to do?” She replied, “The Insect Series.” That was a collection of five plays I wrote between 1997 and 2001 chronicling how Hong Kong people suffered through the financial crisis three decades ago, how they contained their anguish, weathered the storm and survived the deluge. Bonni and I adapted and connected the five plays in creating Lumination of the Forgotten. Three decades is not much time, but looking back, we notice many changes in our society’s constellation. I eagerly await her fluid and poetic theatrical language, akin to the Goddess of Mercy sprinkling water, cleansing our dust-covered thoughts to make a postcard worthy of Hong Kong’s yesteryears as brilliant pomegranate blossoms.
Braving life’s perils
For the month of July dominated by water lilies, Assistant Artistic Director Fong Chun Kit closed his eyes and stretched his two fingers, selecting Tony Award-winner Jack Thorne’s new play After Life, based on Hirokazu Kore-eda’s award-winning film (known in Japan as Wonderful Life). Heaven implies death. What is death, really? Confucius once said, “If you don’t understand life, how can you understand death?” He was telling us if we want to understand death, we must first figure what it means to live. If not, we should just drop the question. What does it mean to live and be human? A man’s reputation remains after his death, just as a goose utters its cries wherever it flies. Apart from reputation, what else is left? The astute Fong Chun Kit joins hands with the perceptive Kwok Wing Hong in their characteristic Cantonese approach, braving the script’s journeys between life and death, pondering our final destination. Legend has it that water lilies open and close from day to night as an analogy of reincarnation. Amidst life’s ups and downs, how can we be enlightened? Enter Chun Kit and Wing Hong.
Staging comebacks
In September, when jasmine flowers are radiant, two acclaimed plays return to the stage. Ambiguous, which premiered in 2021, examines a “probable extra-marital affair that might or might not have taken place”. Playwright Matthew Cheng wields his pen with such alacrity, dissecting the ins and outs of married life, and how people get together and grow apart. His treatment is graceful and subtle, yet always hits the mark with every dramatic turn. No wonder the production has been popular among lovelorn men and women. Last year we premiered Scapin in Jiānghú, a collaboration between Kwok Wing Hong and Fong Chun Kit deconstructing Molière’s comedic classic, making a brand-new farce about marriage chock full of hilarity, delighting the audience to no end. What drives the story to its conclusion is true love. Both of these plays deal with marital bonds, one quiet and understated and the other vigorous and farcical, both directed by Fong Chun Kit. As a director, he commands such skill and imagination, surprising us at every turn whether disturbing the peace with a bombshell, or conjuring elaborate bouquets from nothing. These jasmines exude pure fragrance in a hot September: they touch our hearts.
Fulfilling a mission
When poinsettias fill the city in December, a group of heroines turn up in a special training camp. They climb rocks and ropes daily, enduring tremendous physical challenges, constantly exhausted as their bodies are taxed to their limits. Though they have to endure such hardships, none regret their decision as their bodies become chunky and muscular and haloes seem to hover above their heads. What’s the back story? These women belong to the Christmas Special Force. Their job is to dress up as Santa Claus on Christmas Eve in search of those most in need of gifts at the far end of the world. What are these gifts? I also want to know what motivates people, especially women, in pursuing such lofty ideals. The Absolute Task is written and directed by Poon Wai Sum (yes, yours truly). I’m but an unrefined man, I have no presumptions. I travelbamong these women surrounded by poinsettias and verdant leaves. All I can make are a few impudent jokes. But I want to accomplish my mission, uncovering the gentle secrets about women.
Northern melodies, Southern tunes
In January, with fuchsias abloom, He Jiping’s celebrated play The Top Restaurant returns to our stage. The original HKRep production scored tremendous success two years ago to sold-out houses. This re-run features the same lineup: Roy Szeto as director, Tse Kwan Ho in the leading role, along with Yu Hon Ting, Chris Sun and Mercy Wong. Our ensemble returns to this grand production to satisfy our audience’s appetite. This play—now a renowned classic—originated in Beijing with Peking duck as its subject, revealing such wisdoms about humanity and culture. Our Cantonese version is well-matched, the words as enervating as fuchsia pistils, conjoining northern melodies and southern tunes, delighting our ears with its unique charm. The insightful Roy Szeto, his name known both north and south, crafts this production in typical Hong Kong-style while still delivering authentic Peking duck. This production is legendary and unique of our city.
Smiles that can be bought
In March, as rhododendrons flourish, the spring winds carry us to the 1930s, visiting Hong Kong Island’s Shek Tong Tsui (aka Belcher Point), an area where brothels used to thrive. At that time, every day was like spring, every year rich and plentiful. This was a place where men found pleasure, and where women fought for survival as if they were battling in a colosseum. Poon Wai Sum (indeed, me again) joins hands with guest director Lee Chun Chow to venture deep into such houses of prostitution, making an adaptation from Shakespeare’s classic, creating The Tamed and the Tempted. What does taming mean? To conquer? To fight? In this battleground of Shek Tong Tsui, in the face of material and physical desires, who in fact conquers whom? Lee Chun Chow is my idol, I admire his intelligence and acumen. Amidst the secret codes of nanyin, singing actresses, qipao and wafts of opium smoke, I pick a rhododendron bright red as blood while Lee smiles and pick another, jokingly asking, “Since time began, how many men return from battle?” This all takes place on an ordinary day in March.
Two exotic flowers
I’ve just outlined what appears on the HKRep Main Stage above. This season, our Black Box Theatre features two selections. One of them is The Spoon by the young playwright Alfie Leung, whose premiere production last year directed by Assistant Artistic Director Yau Ting Fai uncovers how an ordinary guy living in society’s crevice can still make it. The play, winning much critical acclaim, makes you pity the protagonist’s circumstances, yet you can’t resist ridiculing him. This re-run, again directed by Yau, will see an even more refined production. In fact, The Spoon is featured in the inaugural Hong Kong Performing Arts Expo (HKPAX), enjoying the opportunity of international exposure. The second production is Sleep, written by recent Nobel laureate Jon Fosse. Fosse is economical in words, depicting the loneliness and reticence between men and women, his approach realistic and deep that strikes at our hearts. The director for this production is again Yau Ting Fai. Three years ago, Yau mounted a Fosse work for us, so this production is a reunion of old friends. Yau understands the script’s subtlety and is an expert in staging: this production illuminates a corner of Europe, a rarity in Hong Kong.
Text Testing Zone
Apart from the Black Box Productions, the HKRep this season launches a new platform to foster the development of local drama. Text Testing Zone stands astride our Reader’s Theatre and a conventional stage production. Our company provides actors, directors and performance venue as well as basic technical support, enabling playwrights with potential to put on new works and take in suggestions, enabling further revisions and refinement in the hopes of future fully-fledged productions. Because this platform does not require huge financial outlay, more upcoming playwrights can benefit from it. The first cohort of projects accepted into the Text Testing Zone include Hui Jim’s Vacant Possession, Lee Wai Lok’s Stay with the Flow and Ming Lai’s In Between. These three playwrights, born in the 1980s and ’90s, are in their prime, their talents on the rise. All three works were selected in last year’s “Project Alchemist” and all are impassioned dramas relevant to Hong Kong today, each amstylistic gem. The inaugural Text Testing Zone is spearheaded by Assistant Artistic Director Lau Shau Ching, a veteran with a wealth of practical experience who knows how to safeguard the integrity of the text. The Text Testing Zone will surely become a treasure trove of talents.
Pushing the envelope
Art knows no boundaries, and wherever we find sympathetic audiences is home. As border crossings return to normality between Mainland China and Hong Kong, the HKRep has resumed its Mainland China tour plans, preparing to meet more audiences devoted to the art. Our touring productions include The Isle, Ambiguous and The Top Restaurant, each having proved itself in front of theatregoers and deserving to be exported. Different soils and climates nurture different types of people—and theatre. To be able to travel to new places is not only testament to our wanting to share what we cherish, but our daring to venture out of our comfort zone, moving to cities that do not share our language, accepting a different standard of assessment. We are intent on pushing the envelope, accepting criticism and endeavoring to make progress many times over.
Winds continue to blow
Since launching the Project Kite last season, we’ve received a total of 333 scripts from the public. It’s a number neither too big nor too small. We welcome every script, studying each while we search for those with potential. From Project Kite to play-reading to our new Text Testing Zone, we build a viable route for the root of a play (the text) to transform itself into a stage production. As I mentioned earlier, “our bearing is the focus on solid dramatic texts,” and I am serious about this.
A flying kite and fluttering butterflies both delight
Whether near or far, a string ties them effortlessly
In such times and such a place
Spring winds deliver you to the Heavens
                                      —Deng Tuo, Paper Kite
The sky’s the limit, and winds continue to blow. Do you have a kite?
Flowers exude beguiling fragrances
Finally, and equally important, our Education Hub on Cox’s Road has opened its doors, signalling a milestone in the development of HKRep’s educational programmes. We are dedicated to promoting a humanistic spirit emanating from the core values of the dramatic arts. In ancient times, there was the Heyang county official Pan Yue who planted plum trees all over his jurisdiction. He was praised for governing with great morals. Today Chow Chiu Lun heads the HKRep Education Hub, cultivating a garden for drama in the middle of a bustling city. Fragrant flowers fill the space in celebration of such immeasurable merit.
This is a rather long introduction. I’m grateful you have the patience to finish it.
Poon Wai Sum
Artistic Director
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