Fighting without any action

(From left) Theatre practitioner Zelda Tatiana Ng's reinterpretation of the 1998 Chinese pugilistic comedy Leng-Geh-Mng stars Ric Liu and Ray Lee.
(From left) Theatre practitioner Zelda Tatiana Ng's reinterpretation of the 1998 Chinese pugilistic comedy Leng-Geh-Mng stars Ric Liu and Ray Lee.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Forget costumes and props. The reinterpretation of martial arts play Leng-Geh-Mng will feature only voices and sound effects

A Chinese martial arts play without costumes, weapons or action is inconceivable in this day when audiences are used to whiz-bang productions.

But theatre practitioner Zelda Tatiana Ng is stripping down with her reinterpretation of the 1998 Chinese pugilistic comedy Leng- Geh-Mng, which translates to Dragon's Tooth Gate in Hokkien.

The 47-year-old is directing and narrating a performed reading of the play, as part of arts centre Centre 42's The Vault programme, which engages artists to respond to past Singapore theatre works in any way they choose.

Leng-Geh-Mng was billed as Singapore's first full-length martial arts production when the play was first staged in November 1998 by Singapore theatre company Drama Box and directed by its current artistic director Kok Heng Leun.

Ng, who was involved in the original production as a stylist, tells The Straits Times: "I didn't want it to have that much action, so I changed the stage instruction so that I'll be the narrator. The idea is to bring it across using voices and sound effects."

Written by Chinese playwrights Lee Shyh Jih and Lim Poh Poh, Leng-Geh-Mng lampoons conventional Chinese martial arts narratives. For instance, instead of pitting heroes against villains, it features solely villains.

Its protagonist, a lowly hooligan named Yue-Liang-Hong, flees charges of peeping at the emperor's concubines. He arrives at Leng- Geh-Mng Inn, where he meets a group of immoral bandits skilled in martial arts.

Ng says: "If you look at the socio-political issues now, you'll realise it's still relevant today. A lot of things can be very 'dirty' and not what you'd expect.

"The question is: How do you deal with it? I don't believe there's anyone who is totally good or bad."

She asked five actors who had worked on the original production, most of whom have retired from stage acting, to voice the play this time.

"It's a good comparison for their journey. When you do your character 20 years later, it informs you with other things and you learn so much more," she says.

Dental surgeon Ray Lee, 48, who is reprising his role as Yue in the play, says the biggest challenge will be to act using only his voice.

"My voice has got to project all the emotions," he says.

Actor Ric Liu, 43, who is part of the play for the first time, agrees and adds: "Through our voices, the audiences will have images of what we look like, the colours, the locations, the danger, the kind of weapons we're using. So their imagination will bring them out of this world. That will be the magic."

Ng also translated parts of the play into the various Chinese dialects, such as Hakka, Hokkien, Hainanese and Cantonese, as an experiment with tongues.

She says: "I wanted to explore languages and dialects, and when I translated the play, I had to consider things like the rhythm and the socio-political and psychological implications. There are many things to be excavated as the play features characters from different provinces and it reflects how mixed our society is."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2016, with the headline 'Fighting without any action'. Print Edition | Subscribe