Back in 2007, Contemporary Legend Theater (當代傳奇劇場, CLT) staged one of its most ambitious projects of cross-cultural, cross-genre fusion, which was intended not just to attract younger audiences to a theatrical experience built around Beijing opera, but also to provide young aspiring Chinese opera talents with the opportunity to show they were not just slaves of a fading tradition.
The considerable commercial and critical acclaim of 108 Heroes (水滸108) led to financial support from the Hong Kong Arts Festival (香港藝術節), which commissioned a sequel that will make its Taiwan debut on June 16.
Despite extensive commitments, troupe manager Lin Hsiu-wei (林秀偉) said the opportunity was too good to waste and the original team was brought back together to create 108 Heroes II — The Hall of Righteousness (水滸108 — 忠義堂), which premiered at the 39th Hong Kong Arts Festival in March.
108 Heroes is based on a novel that has been popular since the 14th century. Widely known by the English titles of Outlaws of the Marsh or The Water Margin, it has a massive cast of characters and runs for over 100 chapters. The 2007 production roughly covered events in the first 30 chapters, and the second installment tackles another 30 or so. For such a sprawling novel to be brought to the stage, quite a lot of rearrangement has had to be done, a task that was tackled by novelist Chang Ta-chun (張大春).
This production follows a vein in Contemporary Legend Theater’s repertoire that dates back to 2003 and the groundbreaking “hip-hopra” A Play of Brother and Sister (兄妹串戲), which incorporated hip-hop and electronic music into a Chinese operatic performance.
The cast of Contemporary Legends core performers will be augmented by performers from the Theater and College of Chinese Opera, Shanghai Theater Academy (上海戲劇學院戲曲學院).
Apart from the draw of scriptwriter Chang, one of the most influential literary figures in the performing arts, 108 Heroes also boasts the participation of pop idol and composer Emil Chow (周華健), who has produced a rollicking score to complement the traditional orchestra.
Chang has earned considerable fame for his ability to deploy his deep classical learning in a contemporary context, while Chow has on many occasions used pop music to hark back to classical themes. Both have achieved huge commercial success.
The costumes by Lai Yi-wu (賴宜吾) are splendidly over-the-top, rejoicing in a mix of sci-fi fantasy styling and classical Chinese motifs. As with the first installment, every effort is made to tap into contemporary youth culture. The performance includes a rock band, which along with the traditional string and percussion orchestra, will perform live.
This is a remarkably refreshing approach to East-West theatrical fusion, which is usually dominated by an experimental or high art sensibility, and has caused many directors to lose sight of the audience as they pursue their own artistic goals.
A particularly noteworthy aspect of 108 Heroes II — The Hall of Righteousness is that it will have both English and Chinese subtitles, making it accessible to a much wider audience than is generally the case with Chinese opera.
The production runs from June 16 to June 19 at the National Theater, Taipei City. Tickets are NT$500 to NT$2,000, available through NTCH ticketing or online at www.artsticket.com.tw.