By Lindsay Wong
In conjunction with their 30th anniversary, Toy Factory Productions was commissioned to produce ‘7 Sages of the Bamboo Grove’ for the 2020 Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts 2020, performed on 31 January and 1 February at Esplanade Theatre. The play is based on the Chinese historical Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (located in Henan province) – a group of scholars, writers and musicians who lived in the third century under the Three Kingdoms.
- Ji Kang: (historically) author, composer, guqin player → (adapted for the play) musician
- Ruan Ji: musician, poet → composer
- Shan Tao: arts patron (both historically and for the play)
- Xiang Xiu: author → poet
- Liu Ling: poet, scholar → fine artist
- Ruan Xian: scholar, lute player → violinist
- Wang Rong: scholar, writer → student, mystery hacker
The production takes place in a dystopian world run by The Organisation, led by Cao Shuang, which seeks to control the basic free will of its citizens by using technology to its advantage. All artistic endeavours are forbidden, leaving artists stranded. Cao Shuang explains that her dad, who was a ballerino, abandoned her (and her mother) in order to pursue ballet, making her develop a hatred for the arts.
The story has been adapted into a modern-day dystopia, reflecting how totalitarian governments can be right now especially in an age of surveillance and censorship. As globalisation reigns and technology becomes increasingly more advanced, ‘7 Sages of the Bamboo Grove’ explores the relationship between art and society.
Throughout the play, the characters, who are all artists, fear that they will lose their ability to make art and express themselves freely and creatively. The seven sages yearn to find the metaphorical bamboo grove, a safe place for them to create, and they make it their life mission to do so. In the process, the artists experience many sacrifices and hardships, such as dealing with the death of a mentor. However, there is also betrayal, as it turns out that one of the workers under The Organisation is actually the lover of Wang Rong – the hacker who attempted to hack The Organisation’s tech.
One particularly memorable scene is when the seven sages gathered to drink merrily and share their thoughts in the comfort of a safe place. In such a tumultuous environment, the artists relied heavily on alcohol to deal with their issues. As the saying goes, “a drunk mind speaks a sober heart” and this humorous scene showed their dedication towards art and their hatred towards the government. It’s clear that the seven sages had a close bond as they could relate to each other and continued to joke around.
Ruan Xian’s violin piece at the end of the play was undoubtedly my favourite part of the play. Initially performing solo, he played ‘Guang Ling San’, one of the most well-known guqin pieces in Chinese music. Dancers later joined in, along with other musicians. This moving and meaningful performance served as a beautiful conclusion to the production.
‘7 Sages of the Bamboo Grove’ effectively conveys the message that art will always be an important medium of expression and opinion, whether it’s thousands of years ago or thousands of years into the future.
Photo credits: Jack Yam