Travel With Mum: Using masks to tell a real-life travel story

Masks have long fallen out of fashion in theatre, but they are prominently featured in The Nonsensemakers' production, Travel With Mum.

The Hong Kong troupe's artistic director Rensen Chan, 48, tells Life! that there are many advantages to their use.

He points out: "When you are sitting in an auditorium, you can't see facial expressions very clearly. But with a mask, even if you sit in the last row, you can feel the energy of the actor when he uses his body to express his feelings."

Travel With Mum, which will be staged in Cantonese with English and Chinese surtitles, is inspired by the real- life story of a 74-year-old man who builds a tricycle and takes his 99- year-old mother on a journey across China.

Jo Ngai, 46, the group's executive director, plays the mother. Chan, who is her husband, plays the son.

She notes: "Because we have to act as very old characters, we would need a lot of special effects in order to be very convincing." Wearing a mask can accomplish that with very little fuss, she says.

Chan adds that it is also convenient for a "quick change" as the four other actresses in the play need to switch between characters smoothly in a short time backstage.

The interview unfurls in a mix of English, Cantonese and Mandarin and is punctuated with bursts of laughter from the lively pair.

The Nonsensemakers was set up in 1990 and for the first 10 years or so, it put on comedies and farces that were playful and sarcastic. But in recent years, the group has become more reflective.

As Chan puts it: "We want to grow up with our audience, we don't want to stay at the same level without changing."

Their recent works include The Notebook and The Proof, adaptations of acclaimed Hungarian writer Agota Kristof's books of the same name.

Ngai says: "We love to read books and whenever one touches us, we would have this urge to put it up on stage. There are a lot of good themes and stories in these books and the world is much bigger than we think."

Chan sees theatre as a means of educating people as well.

"We should walk a step ahead of audiences and lead them to think about things that need to be thought about at the moment, be it values such as filial piety or problems in society.

"The relationship with our audience is one in which we spur each other on. We give them something to think about and they give us feedback to mull over."

Given that Chan and Ngai are partners in both work and life, one wonders what are the pluses and minuses of such a tightly knit relationship.

Ngai warns jokingly, "Be careful" and Chan shoots back with a "No comment".

He then says: "Working together with my wife makes it easy to communicate because we know each other well. And if a play calls for us to behave in an intimate manner, there is nothing embarrassing for us."

Ngai adds that it is good that life and work are inseparable in their relationship.

"Our life goes on at the same pace. We work on the same project, our working and leisure times are the same. Even when we're not working, we'll go watch a performance together and discuss it."

Chan quips: "Also, we don't need to apply for annual leave."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.