O rlando, which opens tonight at Taipei’s National Theater, is a work by celebrated US director and artist Robert Wilson based on UK author Virginia Woolf’s fantasy novel of the same name, first published in 1928.
The novel and play follow the 400-year life of a man, who halfway through the story changes into a woman, from the time of England’s Queen Elizabeth I to the 1920s. The original novel allowed Woolf to meditate lightheartedly on English history, but also more importantly on issues of androgyny and bisexuality, things that to some degree were reflected in her own life story. Characters in the novel, including Orlando, can even be seen as lightly veiled portraits of some of her own friends.
Wilson has already presented versions of Orlando in Paris and London. This weekend’s Taipei staging, however, which stars Beijing opera diva Wei Hai-min (魏海敏), has been heavily reworked as a collaboration between director and performer, and is in many ways a completely new version.
For Wei, who is widely regarded as one of Taiwan’s top Beijing opera performers, her participation in Orlando is part of a decades-long flirtation with modern theater. Most recently, she performed in the revival of Contemporary Legend Theater’s (當代傳奇劇場) 1993 groundbreaking work Medea (樓蘭女), which welded Greek tragedy, Beijing opera and experimental theater.
At a dress rehearsal of Orlando on Tuesday, the stark setting and highly abstract architectural sets put this production far beyond any of her previous efforts. Wei, who endured considerable criticism from fans for her involvement with Contemporary Legend, has taken a leap into the avant-garde, and while there are plenty of operatic elements, they have been utterly transformed — whether for better or worse remains to be answered.
It is a question that will reflect on Wei not only as a performer, but also as a creative artist, for given the obstacles of language and culture faced by Wilson, who generally takes a very strong hold over the look and feel of any work he is directing, Wei has also played a significant role in realizing this new production. “I think I gave him many ideas for this production,” Wei said. She has drawn much from the vocabulary of Beijing opera, to make this “very much a collaborative process.”
During talks and interviews in the run-up to this new version of Orlando, both Wei and Wilson agreed that much of the impact of the production relies on the single performer’s ability to “stand on stage,” holding the audience’s attention with little more than her presence. Wei’s Beijing operatic training stands her in good stead. “There is the phrase: ‘the drama is in every inch of your body (渾身是戲),’” Wei said, “from the top of your head to the soles of your feet, you must be performing.” She has never lacked for stage presence, whether in traditional or modernized Beijing opera, but from the dress rehearsal, there is a fear, in this writer’s opinion at least, that too much is being taken out of context. The clouds of pointless exoticism loom, as they have over so many recent attempts to “modernize” Chinese opera.
Wei said her operatic training was a considerable advantage in trying to achieve one of Wilson’s goals, which is the disassociation of the vocal and visual. This is described by Wilson as “listening to the pictures,” by which he refers to the importance of hearing the text spoken by the body independently of the voice. In addition to playing Orlando, Wei, the only performer in the nearly two-hour-long show, will also take on the roles of all the characters in the protagonist’s 400-year life, giving her an opportunity to showcase the skills that make up the foundation of traditional Chinese theater, as she flits between characters both male and female, old and young.