It is ironic that in its exuberant abandonment of the conventional trappings of Beijing opera, Contemporary Legend Theatre’s (當代傳奇劇場) 108 Heroes (水滸108), first brought to the stage in 2007, has managed to preserve one of Chinese opera’s core values: entertainment. An operatic performance that includes cosplay fashion, street dance and rock music from a live band is necessarily going to alienate some people, but by drawing on the vitality of modern youth culture, it has also opened doors into an older tradition that many young people today would otherwise never think of exploring.
The success of the production in 2007 led to financial support from the Hong Kong Arts Festival to produce a sequel. (108 Heroes had originally been envisaged as a trilogy, but given the costs of such a big production, no timeline had been drawn up.) 108 Heroes II — The Hall of Righteousness (水滸108II︰忠義堂) premiered in Hong Kong in March to considerable critical acclaim, and will open in Taipei on Thursday for four shows. The same creative team led by Contemporary Legend’s founder Wu Hsing-kuo (吳興國), including contemporary novelist and literary figure Chang Ta-chun (張大春), who wrote the script, and pop idol and composer Emil Chow (周華健), who has provided songs and music, are set to burnish this second installment of 108 Heroes to an even brighter contemporary gloss than the first.
108 Heroes is based on a classical novel that has been popular since the 14th century. It is widely known by the English titles of Outlaws of the Marsh or The Water Margin and has been adapted in innumerable media, from comic book to animation to computer game, and though it features a vast array of characters and incidents, most of these are familiar to Chinese audiences from long, even if superficial, acquaintance. This familiarity has allowed the production team greater freedom than would be acceptable in a less well-known work, and Chang has once again been able to cram about a third of the novel into a 130-minute production. The story is told in reverse and through a series of flashbacks, montage and nested narratives, forgoing the linear simplicity of conventional Chinese opera. Large-format projections onto the back of the stage, a live rock band backing up the traditional string and gong orchestra, and costumes heavily influenced by cosplay and the design motifs of Japanese anime and Taiwan puppet theater from Lai Yi-wu (賴宜吾) — whose costume design garnered universal praise in Hong Kong as an undisputed highlight of the show — make this production unlike anything in the world of Chinese opera.
What: 108 Heroes II — The Hall of Righteousness (水滸108II︰忠義堂)
When: June 17 and June 18 at 7:30pm and June 19 at 2pm
Where: National Theater, Taipei City
Tickets: NT$500 to NT$2,000, available through NTCH ticketing or online at www.artsticket.com
Language: In Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles
In 108 Heroes, Contemporary Legend reinterprets Chinese opera in a manner that differs considerably from other high-profile international reworkings of the genre in recent years. The only similarity between it and two quite different productions of The Peony Pavilion — Chen Shizheng’s (陳士爭) historically informed recreation (commissioned by New York’s Lincoln Center) and Kenneth Pai’s (白先勇) rather Disneyfied adaptation — is a willingness to shun aging divas for the leading roles in favor of age-appropriate casting. Both the other productions brought youth back into opera, but nowhere approaching the manner of 108 Heroes, which aims not only to feature young talent, but also to bring a youthful sensibility back into an artistic form that was the pop culture of its era.