The Spirits Play adapted by The Finger Players
The advantage of having an artistic tradition is that the younger artist could see an organic link between the real life of one's country and it's artwork which is a sublimation of that life. - Kuo Pao Kun
The Finger Player’s adaptation of playwright Kuo Pao Kun’s The Spirits Play, directed by Oliver Chong, was mesmerising and well thought.
Kuo's use of literary devices brought about Chong's poignant adaptation of the play. By leveraging on the homophonic nature of the Chinese language, Kuo juxtaposes words such as 雪 (snow) and 血 (blood), both of which are pronounced as xue, that registers strong colour imagery in the minds of the audience. The purity of snow and the image of blood-tainted snow is continually enforced in a somewhat fragmented manner, creating an apprehensive nature in the play. Oliver further accents this element by using the same coloured lights when these words are spoken. Additionally, as the nurse, mother, and soldier gather at the table to converse with the audience, an ember light spotlight lit them when they conversed, and a blue light was shed on them when they returned to their cold, lifeless and dismal state. This adoption of colour imagery encapsulated the life and happiness their memories gave them, inculcating empathy toward the characters as the audience can identify with them as humans instead of the ghoulish image of wandering spirits. However, during this scene, the general and the poet sit on opposing sides of the stage aside from the rest of the characters. Somehow, the general's woes are not as grounded as the stories, which act as an effective foreshadowing of the betrayal later on in the play. Chong's decision to plot the characters this way was strategic, empowered the already heavily ladened script with visuals that brought about a more significant impact.
The sound design was devised with immense authenticity to that of the playwright's setting of the play. For example, in the first scene, the spirits awoke to the ringing of a gong. In traditional Chinese and Japanese mythology, the spirits are awakened with the use of a gong as well. Moreover, leading up to the hanging of dummy bodies, the rhythm of the drum intensifies with a direct correlation to that of the black spirit's movements.
The conscious effort to layer energy, with the help of specially crafted light and sound cues, has resulted in the formation of an effective ambience and atmosphere to translate the intended tone of the play. Thus, a heavy overtone was carried throughout the play, craftily grounded by the literary devices in the script, and enhanced by strategic layers in the sound and light design.
The light design was kept dim and muted, despite the use of vibrant gels for the colours, allowing the imagery in the script to be further emphasised without overwhelming the ambience of the set. This unfolded a solemn premonition, centred around the theme of death and the immense effects of the war, effectively inflicting a tremendous emotional response toward the general's betrayal within the characters and the audience, which was commendable on the director's part.
The Finger Players never fail to amaze with their ability to incorporate their trademark puppetry within their theatre productions. The apparent use of Wayang Kulit techniques offers audiences with a culturally rooted and dynamic piece. Images projected moved in a panoramic style across time in which the play was set. Moreover, the actors gave a sincere performance, and stuck to their role with every exasperated breath, shrill, laugh, and cry.
The play is embedded in a cathartic cycle that starts and ends in a similar manner. However, while the spirits repeated the same lines (as in the chorus) nearing the end of the play, the questions such as "What is home?" and "Will we ever go home?" took on a cynical tone. This conveys a disheartened attitude toward the loss entailing the war and devastation. The spirits then encircle the table in an anticlockwise direction, saluting and placing their hands over their hearts in a repeated manner. Chong draws the play to a close by utilising colour imagery once again. The spirits lay back down into the earth as the poet says "I think this is more like home", a green light is shed representing the spirits choosing to dwell in the pleasant memories of war.
As the audience quietly waits in the darkness, shrill crescendos, a bomb is dropped, bringing the play to an impactful close that incites contemplation toward the travesty of war. The Spirits Play was indeed a monumental reworking of the late Kuo's piece.
I like the ephemeral thing about theatre, every performance is like a ghost - it's there, and then it's gone. - Maggie Smith