Sun, May 07, 2000 - Page 17 News List

English theater

Using rooftops and cafes as a stage, Thalie Theatre company performs highly novel versions of European classics

By Bradley Winterton  /  Special Contributor <--!staff-->

Jerome Co in Salome.

PHOTO: BRADLEY WINTERTON

IT was only the lucky few, fortunate enough to be in the know, who last month saw a spectacular, charming, and disturbing production of Oscar Wilde's one-act drama Salome in a cafe-theater off Hoping East Road. Taipei has probably not seen anything as powerful, or as exotic, in years.

The group responsible was Thalie Theatre, a company established in 1997 with the aim of bringing English-language theater to Taipei on a regular basis.

Its founder, and the director of all its subsequent productions, is an Icelander, Daniel Ingi Petursson. Trained in theater in Paris at the Ecole Jacques Le Coq, and at the Ecole Philippe Gaulier, Petursson worked briefly in London before moving to Asia. Since setting up Thalie, he has directed productions of classics by Chekhov, Strindberg, and Pinter, together with several smaller-scale pieces.

By concentrating on established classics of the European tradition, Thalie Theatre has seen to it that it is firmly rooted in established quality, while at the same time offering its audiences highly novel styles of presentation.

Even the physical settings are often a surprise. The company's debut (Chekhov's The Bear) was performed one Sunday afternoon on the roof of an inner-city building, while Strindberg's Miss Julie was played to considerable effect along a very broad acting area, with the audience deployed in just two long rows of seats.

In order to understand Thalie Theater's distinctive way with the classics, it's necessary to recall just what kind of a production Salome was.

In a bizarre vision of Jerusalem under Roman rule 2,000 years ago, we were offered a cigarette-smoking, campy King Herod with painted lips, rouged cheeks, and a brow wreathed in roses; contentious female Jewish rabbis wearing sunglasses and snorkelling masks; soldiers with toy Kalashnikovs that flashed multi-colored lights; a harlequin dancer, carrying with equal unconcern, glasses of wine and John the Baptist's severed head; and a Baptist himself who seemed as eager to rape Salome as to resist her already direct advances.

Yet in contrast to these playfully grotesque portrayals was a Princess Salome played without a shred of comedy, and indeed with genuinely tragic overtones. And the whole thing was placed, with considerable deftness and insight, against the background of a omen-plagued ancient Mediterranean world, where popular delight in cruelty was all-but universal, and the sight and taste of blood relished almost as much as feared.

The show's music was no less eclectic than its visual style. We had Marlene Dietrich singing "The Boys in the Back Room," Puccini's "Nessun Dorma," Gipsy Kings, Dalida's "Bambino," and Purcell's Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary. The effect of this combination was partly to give a feeling of kitsch, and partly one of high tragedy, a mixture typical of the production style as a whole.

These, then, were the key elements of what was by any standards a very unusual theatrical event.

"Most of the actors came together through regular workshops I've been holding in Taipei over the years," says Petursson. "Quite a few of them have professional backgrounds in their own countries but have found it hard to get theatrical work here in Asia. The result is a far higher standard of performance than you'd really have any right to expect."The company is now in the enviable position of being able to draw on an acting team that includes members from Taiwan, Italy, Sweden, the USA, Australia, and the Philippines. Their backgrounds are as varied as their acting styles.

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