By Gao Xingjian
Translated and adapted by Bruno Roubicek
Directed by Megan Evans
Performed and produced by THEA 323
Studio 77, Wellington | May 20-24
Performed at Victoria University’s Studio 77, Wild Man by Gao Xingjian is the culmination of the Theatre Programme’s third year production course “Intercultural Performance Practices”. Having done this paper myself in 2013, I can sympathise with the added anxiety of opening a show which uses techniques and conventions that are largely unfamiliar to Wellington audience. However, under the direction of Megan Evans (who also directed Madam X and Mister Q, Best Theatre, Fringe 2013), the students have created an exciting, engaging, and moving piece of theatre, which asks a lot of its audience, but gives a great deal more in return.
According to the programme notes, when it premiered in 1985, six years after the end of China’s Cultural Revolution, the play (set in a remote rural mountain village in mainland China) provoked passionately mixed reactions; some were thrilled by its avant-garde structure and use of Chinese ritual elements, while others were troubled by its lack of clear message and indefinite narrative line. Indeed, the play does have several narrative lines, which include: ‘The Ecologist’ (Ryan Knighton) who arrives in a small, remote mountain village to carry out ecological research; two reporters, both called ‘Wang’ (Diesel McGrath and Kashmir Postel), who come to the same place to solve the mystery of the ‘Wild Man’ (an elusive, mythological creature who is essentially China’s answer to the Yeti); and the peasant villagers who all claim to have caught a glimpse of it. All of this is underpinned by multiple thematic currents; environmental issues surrounding deforestation are intersected by thematic tensions between nature and machine, myth and history, the rural and the urban, cultural tradition and modernisation.
Tuesday’s show managed to successfully bind all of these intersecting elements into a cohesive narrative which, although being complex, was engaging and exciting to follow. This is due to the highly energetic performances from the dedicated ensemble who, having studied and trained in the techniques of Chinese Opera as well as Japanese Noh, Kyogen, and the Suzuki Method of actor training (which, as in my own experience, have been the primary training methods and styles the students explored throughout the course), tell their story through dynamic stylised physicality; masterful and breath-taking puppetry (credit must be given to Kashmir Postel’s beautiful red-necked crane puppet which glides gracefully around the space); an ever-transforming bamboo set, and meticulous integration of live song, gongs, image projections, and video footage. They also make superb use of the space, action happening in front, behind, above, and among the audience, whilst some set pieces and props are even (literally) flown in. It is very much simple, but spectacular, stage magic. And yet through all of these bells and whistles we are still able to connect with the characters and their stories. While I spent the majority of the one hour and 45 minutes laughing, I must admit to shedding a tear or two at the end.
The first 30 minutes do seem to drag a little bit, as both the cast and the audience adjust to the stylised world they have entered in to. The stakes seem higher than usual for the performers, as they no doubt worry about whether their audience will accept or reject the stylised physicality, whether they will be able to (or even want to) buy into the story they are telling, or whether it will all simply be too much. I could sense this among cast of Wild Man. But once they understood that we were engaged with their story (after a few moments of pin-dropping solemnity and a few good laughs) they became more confident and the energy rose exponentially. As another audience member observed, it is a piece that will develop well over its season, and I have no doubt that both audience and actor will make new exciting and thrilling discoveries and connections in the coming performances.
Wild Man may not be to everyone’s taste, but it is a thrilling show in a wonderful space that deserves to be tested on the palate. It offers so much in terms of visual aesthetic, as well as in its thematic and narrative compasses, that one is sure to be able to take something from it. At the very least it is an example of magical storytelling that will leave you moved and entertained.