First published in The Times, Thursday August 23 2018
This multiform production from Taiwan’s Our Theatre lasts only 50 minutes, but it manages to squeeze in references to everything from Shakespeare to Taoist funeral ceremonies in its portrayal of the declining communities of the country’s southern coastline. If the show’s eclecticism doesn’t ultimately cohere, it does feature some arresting images and moving vignettes that offer a rare insight into a marginalised way of life.
This theatrical melange, directed by Jhao-Cian Wang, is threaded together by the character of an itinerant King Lear, whom we discover raging and philosophising among the ruins of one of the island’s fishing ports. The more engaging character, however, is a young woman of Chinese origin, played by Pen-Chieh Yu, who has married into the harsh lifestyle of the island’s dwindling oyster industry. Though her tale is a sad one, she remains upbeat, her face opening up with pleasure as she recounts her passion for traditional tambourine dancing. These strands are interspersed with images of derelict buildings in the Chiayi area of Taiwan by the photographer and filmmaker Chuang I-Tseng, whose documentary project gives the show its name.
The fusing of Shakespeare with traditional Taiwanese culture (including music, played live onstage, and interventions from Taoist priests) is a bold move but in the end it feels misguided. The Lear figure doesn’t add in any meaningful way to our understanding of this place and her people. The avowed intention of Wang and Cheng-Ping Hsu, the playwright, was to highlight the universality of the show’s themes of decline, death and the possibility of rejuvenation, but this should be self-evident. A stricter focus on Yu’s character alongside a clear elucidation of Chuang’s photographs would have made the piece feel less cluttered and a little easier to follow.