Is History an Absolute True?

In the film adaptation of The Orphan of Zhao (Zhao Shi Gu’er), the retainer Cheng Ying saved the orphan of Zhao by surrendering his own son. While the righteousness delivering from death gives forth a mournful dirge, whether the widely shared story truly reflects the historical fact, and whether there exists only one historical fact, are questionable. Ata Wong Chun Tat, the Artistic Director of Théâtre de la Feuille, has abandoned the heroic narrative for a step edging closer to human nature, presenting an orphan saving story in a more layman-like manner, and even revealing the ashamed narrative of the original plot. What is the truth? Maybe we’ll never find out. Yet, instead of blindly believing it, why not reflect our search for the truth?

By Fanny Lam | Translated by Renee

Director Ata Wong

The narrower the framework of the society, the broader the creativity. The rule is that we can bust the boundary, but not resist it. When unlimited imagination transcends the limited frame, this is when art brings people happiness.

In the year Ata pursued studies in Paris, the struggle of drifting away from home at a distant country has led him to experience a disturbance in his identity. In the search for the root of culture, he created L’Orphelin, which was based on the first Chinese classic story being translated in European languages. Five years later, he returned to Hong Kong where the shocking scenes became the inspiration for his creation of L’Orphelin 2.0. “It was 2013 and 2014 when a series of major events piled onto one another in Hong Kong, from the anti-national education protest to the umbrella movement. Putting aside the discussion on whether the incidents are positive or negative, these have prompted me to explore what the truth is!”

The layers of “truth” are peeled away Keeping the audience captured with astonishment and awe

L’Orphelin was transformed to L’Orphelin 2.0, the subject was changed from cultural exploration to truth tracking. (Photo: Carmen So @ Right Eyeball)

There then came an opportunity in the same year to participate in an exchange at Beijing. With a combination of actors from both Beijing and Hong Kong, the subject was changed from cultural exploration to truth tracking, and thus L’Orphelin was transformed to L’Orphelin 2.0. Adapted from the Operas of Yuan Dynasty (Yuan Chao Za Ju), the film adaptation of The Orphan of Zhao is undoubtedly the most emotionally touching. However, this most familiar version does not represent the historical fact, while historical fact may not be the truth. The 2.0 is a narration of different versions. In the Records of the Grand Historian (Shi Ji), Cheng Ying did not swap his own son for the orphan of Zhao, but displacing so with the baby of his neighbor instead. “In that case, Cheng Ying is not a hero, but a villain. Nevertheless, does the historical fact written by Sima Qian tell the truth? How could he listen to the conversation of the protagonists and write them down as the so-called historical facts? Would the sentence of castration affect his state of mind when writing the history? These are my questions.”

The tracking of truth by Ata has not stopped at this. After the theatre finished, the actor narrated another version from the Commentary of Zuo (Zuo Zhuan) verbally——Princess Zhuang, the mother of the orphan of the Zhao, was an adulteress. Her son therefore was most likely a “bastard” born from adultery. With “historical facts” being presented one after the other, it seems to be a bit too cruel to the audience. However, this is what Ata enjoys doing and that he never gets tired of. “When the performance was over, the audience did not boo at the theatre, but burst into wild applause and cheering. It’s because everyone knows that things are never as simple as they seem. Very often there exists a great deal of speculation lying within the truth.”

Art is never being defined
Physical acting comes simple and straightforward

(Photo: Carmen So @ Right Eyeball)

truth is not always black or white, so as art is never being defined.

In Ata’s mind, truth is not always black or white, so as art is never being defined. Abandoning the gorgeous stage and exquisite costumes, he presented the play through “uncommon” physical movement. It seems that he is a believer of fine art though; unexpectedly he also has a good “commercial” sense. “I was the physical acting instructor for the movies Three, Tracey and Warriors of Future, as well as parts of Sammi Cheng’s concert. Presenting the content in an artistic way by leveraging on the commercial resources can enhance the consolidation and dramatic tension of the performance. The two do not conflict with each other.”

“Even if there’s no real weapon in the actor's hands, the imagination of the audience provoked by the actions may be far more frightening and shocking than seeing a visual of bloody scene. ” – Ata (Photo: Carmen So @ Right Eyeball)

Physical acting seems to be rather recondite, but Ata doesnt think so. In the school touring of the mime in mask Papa last year, the students feedback supported his view. Weve a primary student who burst into tears after watching for five minutes. He said the story reminded him of his grandpa.  When you return home and see the sitting pose of your father, you can tell how hes doing today. Letsuppose therea scene of killing. Even if there’s no real weapon in the actor’s handsthe imagination of the audience provoked by the actions may be far more frightening and shocking than seeing a visual of bloody scene. Physical acting is to trigger the greatest imagination with the least props possible. 

Théâtre de la Feuille
The Orphan of Zhao: The Facts and Fiction Behind
L’Orphelin is devised based on The Orphan of Zhao, one of China’s oldest plays and the first to be translated into an European language. As with any classic, numerous versions exist. It first appeared in Commentary of Zuo (Zuo Zhuan) and then described by the great historian Sima Qian in the Records of the Grand Historian (Shi Ji). What is the truth? Can we find out the absolute truth? Without stage settings nor historical costumes, the show retells the legend in sinuous, metaphorical body movements. A powerful piece not to be missed!
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