Te Pou Theatre has approached Ionesco’s classic farcical play from four “different cultural viewpoints”. Not only will the four seasons of The Chairs be translated into Te Reo Maori, Samoan, Cantonese and English, but the whole experience will be transformed too. Each set will shift and change to fit into the cultural context of each language. Te Pou’s production of The Chairs will be a fantastic way to embrace the linguistic and cultural diversity of Aotearoa.
Being Half-Chinese, I decided to meet up with Renee Liang, producer of the Cantonese season, and Sam Wang, one of the actors involved. We ate Pho and discussed language, accidental destinies and working on The Chairs.
Renee Liang considers herself an accidental writer, even though her Chinese name essentially determined her destiny: “My grandfather named me for my destiny: Literary Blossom”. Liang took a year off her job in medicine and decided to write. From here, she entered the performing arts industry with a bang: Writing a play to procrastinate writing her novel, having a massive lighting failure 10 minutes before her first opening…Liang describes her introduction to being a producer: a “massive going down in flames disaster” experience. But, Liang’s works really show her passion for celebrating the cultural perspectives in New Zealand. She also has a deep understanding of the importance of language representation: “Language is really important because the way you frame something actually changes the meaning and it changes how you see the world” Liang says. She explains that there is a lag, a cultural barrier that exists when a performance is not in your mother tongue. “Theatre is three-dimensional, but when it’s in another language that isn’t yours there’s sort of an issue…[The Chairs] will be an experience of a full play in your home language”.
As the daughter of Hong Kong immigrants, Liang really recognizes the importance of representation, especially in theatre. She hopes the Cantonese season will bring three types of audiences together: Fluent Cantonese speakers, partly-competent speakers, and those with no Cantonese at all. “We want to give an experience for all three groups…We haven’t done anything Ionesco hasn’t written, we’ve just added another layer to it.”
Sam Wang, who plays the Old Man, also considers himself an accidental actor! Born in China, but raised in Australia, Wang intended to study medicine or law. He, instead, ended up taking filmmaking alongside his law degree and, later, found himself in Toi Whakaari. He met Renee Liang when he took a break from his law career, and decided to act in The Mooncake and the Kumara. For The Chairs, Wang had to learn Cantonese, and through this discovered that “[Cantonese] is very image rich and very dramatic…everything is extreme in Cantonese”. This lead to another enriching discovery, that watching cartoons and series dubbed in Cantonese “is a lot funnier because it’s so dramatics it works really well”.
Wang also combined his multiple interests to really give him a deeper understanding of stories and performing literature: “The math involved in the combinations of putting things together, the different permutations…[that kind of skill] translates quite well with stories. We look at the possibilities of things that can happen”.
Te Pou’s production of The Chairs “is not just a text translation it is a whole cultural translation”. Renee Liang has helped bring the Cantonese season to life and I look forward to watching Sam Wang act as the Old Man. Understanding their backgrounds and insights has heightened my excitement for this performance.
The Cantonese season of The Chairs is running at Te Pou Theatre 1-4 August in New Lynn. Click here to get your tickets!
Jennifer Cheuk is an English/Communications and Linguistics major with a passion for graphic novels and sophisticated picture books. She likes eating grated cheese and watching niche films. Can be found cartooning and writing on instagram: @selcouthbird.
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