Words in 4 Tongues, plus the Universal Gift of Laughter

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Words in 4 Tongues, plus the Universal Gift of Laughter

Last month at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, four theater companies from three countries - Korea, China and Japan - together staged "Monkey King," a play based on the Chinese epic novel, "Journey to the West." The performance was part of this year's Hong Kong Arts Festival.

The play was one of the festival's most talked-about productions. Four languages were used in each performance - Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean - plus English subtitles.

"Journey to the West" relates the mythological adventures of the Great Monk Tang who travels west in search of the sutra, the Buddhist Holy Book, with his three disciples, the irreverent yet capable Monkey, greedy Pigsy and Monk Sha. The journey takes the Great Monk Tang through all kinds of entertaining trials and tribulations, mostly at the hands of monsters or demons in various shapes and sizes who want to eat him. Only the courage and powers of his disciples, especially the monkey, save Great Monk Tang from death. The monkey is the hero of the fantasy, and leads the pilgrimage.

On a wall above the dark stage appears "once upon a time," written in Chinese, Japanese and Korean. A hush falls over the audience. The Korean, Chinese and Japanese actors, who have been hidden among the audience, walk to the stage, reading the lines on the wall in their own languages. The curtain goes up, the stage is lighted and the main characters appear on the stage. "I cannot walk any further, because I'm so hungry," says Monk Sha, played by a Korean actor, Shin Hyun-jong, in Korean. "Neither can I," answers Monkey King in Japanese. "Neither can I," echoes Pigsy in Cantonese. And in these many tongues the play begins.

The role of Monkey King is played by a Japanese, Sato Jun, Pigsy by a Chinese, Lee Chun-chow, and Great Monk Tang by a Japanese, Yoichi Kobiyama. Other roles, such as thieves or villagers, are divided among the multinational band of actors.

The play is set in a village where the Monkey King and his company encounter villagers offering a child to the Demon King at the banks of a huge river. The Monkey King takes the place of the child and defeats the demon, but runs into another problem when the Great Monk Tang and Pigsy are tricked by the demon.

Despite the linguistic barriers, the audience seemed to enjoy the play, judging by the continuous laughter.

"Adults may have problems following the plot but children, surprisingly enough, catch onto the story perfectly," said Uyama Hitoshi, the director of the play. He added, "It is better to watch the play with a simple mind, without trying hard to understand it with your head."

"For the performances in Korea, we plan to increase the number of lines spoken by Korean actors. This will help the audience understand what's going on and elucidate what is being said in the other languages on the stage," said Kim Chang-re, a Korean associate director.

There will be no English subtitles for the performances in Korea but the actors' comic gestures should help illustrate what is happening.

There is no impenetrable line between stage and audience in "Monkey King." The actors approach the stage from the auditorium, and they join the audience again in the middle of the show. In some scenes the actors flap a huge white cloth over the audience to symbolize waves in the water.

The play will tour Asia, with performances in Beijing and Singapore, before it comes to Korea. It will run on March 23 and 24 at the Opera Theater in Seoul Arts Center. For ticket information, call Ticket Link at 1588-7890 (English service available).

by Park So-young

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