Taiwan Season: Heart of Darkness

A psychic journey, through physical theatre and music, Sun Son Theatre’s Heart of Darkness explores the damage inflicted on a woman by arranged marriage. Inspired by the choreographer and dancer, Low Pei-Fen’s grandmother – who the males in the family called crazy – this show is a little gem. The movement and music meld into a searing non-verbal dialogue evoking her conflicting emotions.

Low Pei-Fen is a dynamic performer but the real star of the show is the extraordinarily expressive soundscape.

Long hair features throughout, symbolising the tie which must never be cut and which binds her to her parents’ expectations, but whether she’s protected or trapped is in question. As the woman relives her pre-wedding emotions, anxieties and fears, her braid swirls around her and stretches on the floor; she walks on it symbolising her path in life. Throwing it in all directions, she momentarily rebels with fierce Tai Chi martial art inspired moves.

Low’s versatility as a performer is impressive. From anguish conveyed by Butoh-like contortions and crouching to hysterical laughter, her varying moods are matched by the mesmerising and spine-tingling music like nothing I have heard before: both eerie and heart-rending. Played live on stage by four musicians using traditional Chinese instruments such as the gu zhen (harp), er wu (fiddle) and instruments from throughout the world, a rainstick, Malyasian gongs and the Indian Shruti drone box, plus electronic music composed by Goh Lee Kwang, impressionistic contemporary sounds are interspersed with chanting, throat gurgles, wails, horns and staccato clicks of wood. Occasionally, these soundscapes are interrupted by recordings of Chinese traditional Bei Guan wedding music to remind us of the woman’s impending fate.

A turning point is reached indicated by drumming. The three female musicians dance with large drums attached to their backs, hit by curving sticks which they must swing behind them. The burden of responsibilities and duties a woman must bear throughout their lives, the drums also indicate a ritual to drive out evil spirits. Strengthened, the woman at last calms herself to face the uncertain future of her marriage with courage and dignity.

Costumes and set are simple but striking. in particular the use of red (It helps to know that it is the Chinese symbol of happiness and weddings). Her undergarments, revealed in the back flips are red, masked by the muddy colours she wears on top, perhaps suggesting that her inner self and potential happiness are suffocated by the strictures of marriage. Vast red flags are waved and the sudden unfolding of a red banner at the back of the stage is a dramatic prelude to the nuptials. The lowering of a red cloth over the woman’s head and hiding her face finally erases her individuality and is a moving end to the show as she walks down a red carpet to her wedding.

Low Pei-Fen is a dynamic performer but the real star of the show is the extraordinarily expressive soundscape.

Reviews by Stephanie Green

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The Blurb

Taipei-based Sun Son Theatre fuses instrument, voice, body, drama, ritual and environment with traditional and folk elements, symbolic objects and contemporary theatre to explore the inner self. Its work is characterised by an organic performance energy free from racial and cultural boundaries. Long hair symbolises a woman’s pathway through life. Time shrinks in her shadow. Aspiration, expectation, fear, secrets and ambition lay hidden deep inside. Heart of Darkness attempts to understand women who are slowly forgotten.

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