Theatre review: What Is Sex? is glossily enticing but rings hollow

The allure of the Dream Of The Red Chamber - one that promises cloistered, blushing beauties but also unleashes the inner rot of high society - doesn't seem to have faded for Hong Kong director Edward Lam.

There are no bevy of beauties in What Is Sex?, performed by the Edward Lam Dance Theatre yesterday at the Esplanade Theatre, but he does have a suited and booted ensemble of a dozen dashing men, assembled as a team of suave storytellers and performers who enact episodes from the sprawling 18th-century classic.

While What Is Sex? - showcased by the Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts - completes Lam's quartet of productions based on the four great Chinese classics, his re-take on Dream Of The Red Chamber also feels like a bookend to Awakening (2011), his all-female incarnation of the same classic text with pop idol Denise Ho in the lead.

There, he dealt lightly with the narrative of predestination and fate, more content to leave the show as a sort of Taiwanese idol drama than anything else.

This time, the central characters of Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu, the ill-fated lovers, take a back seat to a deliberate dissection of the topsy-turvy world of patriarchy and gender identity.

Of course, "What Is Gender?" or "What Is Sexual Identity?" doesn't quite have the same provocative ring as "What Is Sex?", but you can trust Lam, known for his slick, contemporary packaging, to gift wrap his productions in the most enticing of ways - which unfortunately does not always mean that the gift itself is worth it.

The episodic 31/2-hour performance at the Esplanade Theatre focuses on 17 scenes, encounters between characters sometimes recast in a modern setting, whether in a high-end suit shop or a present-day boys' school, at other times taking place in a sort of purgatorial empty space.

Aside from a direct narration of scenes from Cao Xueqin's text, there are plenty of puns and literary allusions to Dream Of The Red Chamber in a larger meta-theatre frame, and a sprinkling of light witticisms that lift a heavy-going plod, with the first half moving at a quicker, more engaging pace than the second.

The key character here is Wang Xifeng - also known as Mrs Jia by marriage - played mainly by two actresses, Rebecca Yip and Chou Heng-Yin, symbolising a sort of inner crisis or divide, unable to reconcile both halves of her self. Wang Xifeng is one of the most venomous characters in the novel, terribly cruel but also incredibly capable and competent, and in this case, wracked by self-doubt.

Lam therefore casts her as "masculine" and practically boorish in certain scenes, as the male actors cling to obvious masculine or feminine performances depending on the characters they are playing. Even some role reversals, say, when Wang Xifeng is tormenting the gullible Jia Rui who believes he will end up having an intimate rendezvous with her, are textbook subversions, with Wang playing the "man" leading the "woman" on.

At the same time, in the meta structure of the play, Wang Xifeng is plied by these storytellers, who tell her they can be anything she wants them to be, but they also toy with her and lead her on, and instruct her not to ask questions.

This inverted gender play isn't particularly revolutionary; in fact, it is probably the most traditional trope of all, one used in Chinese opera in the past because women were not allowed to take to the stage.

The female impersonators were often the ones who gained the most praise for how skilfully they portrayed the ideal Chinese woman, one who possessed a sort of ideal femininity, all soft edges and grace.

The most effective moments are when Lam dips beyond the surface and looks at a scene in a different light. There is a sort of exaggerated, deliberately humorous 50 Shades Of Grey-type encounter between Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu (both played by Mo Tzu Yi), with Mrs Jia (Chou) huffily commenting on men's assumptions of sex and what women actually need from the side.

This encounter is echoed later, earnestly and without all the hamming up, and the result is almost tender.

What Is Sex? reminds us mostly of how awfully women were treated, how they attempted to lift themselves from a place of low status through marriage, sexual intrigue and clever manipulation, how they were illiterate and yet were artful at communicating discreet messages or strove to learn poetry in secret.

Yet so often these attempts fail, and fail terribly, resulting in great pain or suicide.

But everything is coated in a sort of glossy, treacly molasses such that even in the most horrible, abusive moments we aren't quite sure if Lam is playing it for laughs; he also seems to associate sombreness with stasis, meaning that grave scenes often unfold at an incredibly slow pace, losing any emotional tension they might have ratcheted up along the way.

There is much talk of mirrors, of reflection, of seeing one's self as they truly are.

But Lam's own epiphanies are so opaque - he seems more content to hold up a mirror to his own work, preening and appreciating himself, leaving us vaguely envious of the glamour the way we might glance at a celebrity in a glossy magazine, admire what he's wearing, and then swiftly turn the page.

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

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