ROAD TO DAMASCUS | Hong Kong, City Hall Theatre

In this Cantonese-language adaptation of Strindberg’s Till Damaskus (1900), director Frederic Mao ensures that we are never mired in the pessimism or existentialism of the anonymous stranger (Chris Sun); we are swept up in his whirlwind meandering from hotel to asylum to mountainside at breakneck speed. On the other hand, this doesn’t help us to like the character, modelled after Strindberg himself, any more than we would if at a slower speed.

Sun is declamatory but urgent with the dialogue: though the stranger is world-weary, and his philosophies are long-held, Sun’s monologues appear to burst out of him with a force not found in the text. He meets a married lady (Louisa So), who has the boundless energy to listen and listen to the stranger’s speeches, and, whenever she can get a word in edgewise, to ask follow-up questions. This characterisation speeds up the action, but saps the central duet of any conflict, and makes no reference to the blatant misogyny of the writing.

There are some uncomfortable choices in regards to the treatment of the mentally ill, painted with expressionistic makeup, and contorting cartoonishly. While the bold characterisation is clearly not meant to be taken literally, it suggests that mental illness happens in another reality, working against the play’s message, “there but for the grace of God go I”.

Claustrophobic, warped production design (Siu Wai Man) and haunting, echoing music (Lam Kwan Fai) transport us across all the myriad locations and the stranger’s own warped world, but it’s not a nice one.

Playing 18 September – 10 October 2021 at the Hong Kong City Hall Theatre.

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