Making connections at 8-hour play

Watching Stan Lai's A Dream Like A Dream was like taking a long-haul flight

Imagine if watching a play involved the kind of tanking up needed for a long-haul flight. That, to my mind, sums up the audience's experience of last weekend's

eight-hour production by Taiwanese theatre master Stan Lai.

Staged at the Esplanade Theatre, A Dream Like A Dream started just after lunch and included two 20-minute intermissions and a 21/2-hour dinner break, finishing at close to midnight.

A doctor, two ailing patients and other characters criss-cross dream and waking, countries and continents in this epic drama, propelled by larger forces and unresolved mysteries.

The flight analogy extended to how the audience prepared for take-off. Two of my dinner companions swopped their contact lenses for spectacles - something I had never seen on them - just before entering the theatre.

At the intermissions, there were long snaking queues for the toilets and drinking fountain. Some audience members had brought their own water bottles - why didn't I think of that, I wondered.

During the show, some could be spotted leaning back in their seats, as though watching an in-flight movie in a reclining position. And I could have sworn that I saw an Esplanade staff member watching the first part in a qipao, before switching after dinner to T-shirt, pants and hoodie for the second part.

For the segment of the audience seated on swivel chairs in the middle of the stage, like myself, the experience was more spaceship than Boeing 747. Scenes were played out on the perimeter of the stage so you had to keep rotating in your chair to follow the action.

In a recurring motif, costumed actors encircled us, walking or running in a clockwise direction, representing a constant stream of commuters, alternate versions of characters or even ghosts.

One friend remarked, half in jest: "If I stop swivelling, you know I've fallen asleep." Her chair kept spinning, as did mine.

Lai's stagecraft and skill at generating intimacy from a sweeping historical canvas meant that the production, by and large, transported us into its world. However, there were also moments in the second part when the drama felt unnecessarily drawn out, its Russian dolls structure of narrative- within-narrative becoming repetitive and predictable.

A Dream Like A Dream was my first durational performance - generally defined as six hours or longer - in all my years of watching and writing about theatre.

The vast majority of performances are capped at four hours, but once in a while, along comes a director who seeks to push the boundaries of the theatrical experience.

Thus far, I have baulked at the thought of lavishing such an extended period of time on a performance.

I must have seen well over 200 productions as an arts journalist and former theatre reviewer, but very few works have stayed with me long after the curtains fell. Age, a husband and two young kids have made time even more of a precious commodity.

I passed on Gatz, the six-hour dramatic reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, when it was staged here four years ago. I had already read the wonderfully evocative novel about the tarnishing of the American Dream and was unsure what the reading by New York ensemble Elevator Repair Service would bring to the table.

No opera buff, I also chickened out of the 19-hour version of The Peony Pavilion - the first time in four centuries that the Kun Opera classic had been mounted in its entirety - when it was staged at the Esplanade's Huayi festival in 2003.

United States-based Chinese director Chen Shizheng had broken up the opera into three-hour instalments over four days. The one instalment of this tragicomic romance that I caught, though vivid and entertaining, did not make me kick myself for not watching the entire cycle.

Lai was a different proposition though. I have seen at least five plays by the director-playwright, including his magnum opus Secret Love In Peach Blossom Land. One does not tyre easily of his productions, by now a fixture of the annual Huayi festival. They combine sparkling dialogue - rooted in improvisation and Chinese crosstalk comedy - with poetic, searching narratives about love, loss and existence.

He is also a maestro when it comes to spectacle. A Dream Like A Dream was very much in that vein, with va-va-voom qipao and other costumes by Tim Yip, the Oscar-nominated art director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). This was no arty, stream-of-consciousness experiment, but eight hours of tautly structured drama.

If anything, I found that compared with the more surreal and intriguing first part, the second part revolving around the life and times of a Shanghainese courtesan had too much structure and not enough spark, with some airless scenes that bordered on melodrama.

Suffice it to say that the production was very much about old-fashioned storytelling. Despite its contemporary trappings, it had more in common with the 16th-century Peony Pavilion than one would think.

The most interesting thing for me about the epic length of A Dream Like A Dream was how it seemed to hark back to theatre's roots in the communality of the audience experience.

Instead of disappearing into the night after two or three hours in the theatre, acquaintances and friends watching the play were compelled to connect during the various breaks. We could catch up, gossip and - of course - discuss the play, this novel marathon experience that we were embroiled in.

First staged in 2000 and now revived for a new tour, Lai's longest work speaks ultimately of how the urge to tell stories, along with the comfort of a listening ear, can be a beacon of hope amid the cruel desolation of human existence.

I doubt I will be going for another durational performance anytime soon. But for this one at least, I was one of many travellers on a journey by turns dazzling and trying - in itself, a tale worth telling.

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