Theatre review: Theatre Practice's first Chinese martial arts play is a treat for wuxia fans

Li Xie and Johnny Ng in The Theatre Practice production, Legends Of The Southern Arch.
Li Xie and Johnny Ng in The Theatre Practice production, Legends Of The Southern Arch. PHOTO: THEATRE PRACTICE

For its 50th anniversary, The Theatre Practice has boldly gone where the local TV station has feared to venture in recent years: into the thick of a Chinese martial arts or wuxia production.

Veteran artistes Johnny Ng and Marcus Chin, familiar faces on Channel 8, can now be seen coming to gongfu blows not in a Channel 8 period drama serial, but in Legends Of The Southern Arch, the theatre group's 302nd production.

Written by Liu Xiaoyi and directed by Kuo Jian Hong, the play grapples with a familiar wuxia scenario - the bloodshed unleashed when various martial arts sects fight to get their hands on a secret manual promising its possessor infinite wisdom and power.

The handsomely mounted play is an evocative treat for wuxia fans, but does not have the heft that one expects of a show billed as an epic tale.

Certainly, there are many little things to like about the show, such as playwright Liu, who plays hero Shi Buqiong, prancing around in a show of fleet-footedness or qinggong, the sounds of horse hooves or the "whoosh whoosh" sounds of swords slicing through the air.

Or simply to catch the gleam reflected in a sabre, such is the dao guang jian ying - literally, the light off a sabre, shadow of a sword - of the martial arts universe.

There are also touches of humour in the oddball gongfu skills conjured up, for instance the Palm Of The Evil Frost Dragon or the more amorous Spearing Together or Passionate Palm.

And there is no lack of fighting scenes: in a bamboo grove, on a desolate beach, on a rocky outcrop, inside a house or inn, pugilists exchange strokes.

In one key scene, Ng, a fiery presence in red as the villain Muzi Wudi, claws at the snow-browed gongfu master Chen Zhaoxue, played by Chin.

They might not have executed any somersault or jump but showed real gongfu with their well-enunciated delivery of dialogue, never sounding out of breath.

Ng, especially, is a pleasure to listen to with his sonorous voice and his perfect rendition of the quintessential villain's laughter, which incidentally acted as a bridge between two scenes.

Another standout is actress Li Xie, who plays Wu Duya, the lady boss of an inn who's a knockout - at mixing toxins.

Like Ng and Chin, Li delivers her lines with ease - unlike a few others who sound a tad "contemporary" in speaking the more formally written Chinese lines.

Li is perfectly cast here as a mother and bitter lover. With a steely look in her eyes or a slight quiver of her lips, Li skilfully surfaces delicate emotions on the big stage.

Actor Nelson Chia, who plays Wu's scholar-like lover Nangong Xian, also looks the part here as the man torn between love and revenge.

Despite the swashbuckling action and the thrill of seeing people dangling on wires, the show can be rather plodding at times, with its insipid romantic scenes.

The constant flashbacks to key plot turns that happened decades ago can also be somewhat hard to follow.

When all the dust has settled and the sun sets over this martial arts world, one departs with nary a glimpse into some larger truth or deeper meaning. If only the show was bigger than the sum of its many lovely touches.

Book it

LEGENDS OF THE SOUTHERN ARCH

Where: Drama Centre Theatre, National Library Building

When: Until April 12, Tuesday to Saturday, 8pm; Saturday and Sunday, 3pm

Admission: $33, $45 and $55 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

Info: Performed in Mandarin with English surtitles