Thursday, September 13, 2012

Reappraising ‘Empress Wu — The Musical’

RUTHLESS, power-hungry and a slut. These are only a few of the derogatory terms ascribed to Empress Wu Tse-Tien, China’s first and only female emperor who reigned during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD).

To many, she was an autocrat, merciless in her desire to gain and keep power. To others she was a woman doing a “man’s job” and merely did what she had to do, acting no differently than most male emperors of her day in ruling the country with an iron fist.

Wu’s ascent to power was filled with acts of betrayal and treachery but also of honour and loyalty. She was a controversial figure both condemned and praised by historians.

In wanting to show a different side of Wu, Pun Kai Loon, artistic director of Kuala Lumpur-based Dama Orchestra decided to stage the life of the ultimate female defiance in China’s history, in Empress Wu – The Musical from Sept 27 to Oct 21 at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac) at Sentul Park, Jalan Strachan, KL.

“To me, Empress Wu was an ordinary woman caught in extraordinary circumstances.

True story: Tan Soo Suan as the Empress and Alex Koh as the Emperor

The fact she was able to circumvent the traditional value system in Confucian culture and rise above and sit on the throne that was predominantly a male domain, for me that’s very fascinating,” said Pun, 54, in an interview with The Malay Mail Lifestyle.

“It’s like having a woman as US President. If you can’t imagine such in a modern context, imagine how difficult it was in those days, and how she managed to climb up there is the fascination and premise of her story.”

Empress Wu is an original Dama production written and directed by Pun, produced by Khor Seng Chew, and with 20 musical numbers composed by Loo Fung Ying and Loo Fung Chiat.

This two-hour production in Mandarin and English features a cast of 31 local actors with the two lead roles played by singer/actress Tan Soo Suan as the Empress and actor/shoemaker Alex Koh as the Emperor.

AT KLPAC: Six cast members of ‘Empress Wu — The Musical’
Pun said the idea for this production germinated in 2009 after he watched Hong Kong studio Shaw Brothers’ 1963 movie Empress Wu Tse-Tien. Inspired, he did research on Wu and discovered sources that shed a different light in explaining the Empress’ actions.

“I got hold of academic papers by Western researchers and those sources gave a very different perspective of Wu.

Behind every action there is a cause and reason. There must have been a reason behind her ruthless behaviour.

My idea was, if I can clear the factual information, reconcile the differences between those sources of information, I can get a good story,” said Pun who started writing the script last November.

Pun Kai Loon
“She’s been called evil, bad, murderer, incestuous, schemer, a devil incarnate, whatever you can think of negative about women. We want to show a different side and this production is a reappraisal of her as a person, as a woman, as a ruler with new perspectives and our own interpretation based on what we read and researched on.”

Pun, who hails from Ipoh, has been involved with Dama since it was formed in 1994 and has been directing some of their productions since 1996. For him, the challenge for this latest production is in articulating the mannerism of the period in which the story is set. “This is something I’m not very familiar with. I’m relying on the actors to do their own research and from their understanding of the roles they play, their characters’ emotions, their motives and what’s driving them forward.

As the scriptwriter, I roughly see who their characters are but I allow the actors to build the character themselves. I need them to discover and become their respective characters,” he said.

Is he satisfied with the production so far?

“I’m nervous. There are so many characters and I think that the burdens on the actors is great because they are trying to portray historical figures. I think it’s very challenging and scary for them as well,” he said.

“This is a labour of love for us. Everything, from the script to the music, the costumes, have all been done by Dama. This is our first original production and we feel this is our proudest work so far. I hope that when the audience leaves the theatre, they will find Wu as fascinating as I found her to be and that the audience would want to find out more about her.”

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