La Cie MaxMind: Isle of Dreams

National Theater, Taipei
March 3, 2018

David Mead

The control and ownership of land, it’s people and resources, power if you like, has been a constant throughout human existence. In Isle of Dreams (蓬萊), La Cie MaxMind (拾念劇集) playwright-director Lee Yi-hsiu (李易修) suggests that mortals do not have a monopoly on those things and the matters are little different for the gods, cleverly doing so in ways that clearly reference our own world, including modern-day Taiwan.

Loosely inspired by the Classic of Mountains and Seas (山海經, a compilation of stories supposedly written by Emperor Yu of China), albeit with characters changed and reimagined, Isle of Dreams is the second part of a mythological trilogy and tells of gods fighting over ownership of a very special garden. At times it’s hard to categorise as Lee uses Nanguan and Beiguan music, poetry and puppetry to tell the tale, always tossing in a hefty dash of contemporary energy and theatre to these traditional performance styles. Some scenes are heavily movement/dance-based too.

Isle of Dreams Photo Mile End Photography
Isle of Dreams
Photo Mile End Photography

There is a lot of text, not that you would understand much just by listening. Lee adds to the characters’ mythological remoteness by making the spoken words sound appropriately ancient. That’s achieved by his devising of a new language based on ancient phonetic principles and that also integrates old dialects in which very old Chinese phonetic elements have been largely preserved including Taiwanese, Hakka, Cantonese and Suzhou. Isle of Dreams is a show where everyone is reading the surtitles!

The story follows a war between the Kun-lun gods for the throne of King of Gods and Goddesses. To end the slaughter once and for all, Nuwa (女媧) and her brother, Fuxi (伏羲), two ancient saint emperors, decide to replace the gods with humans. To prevent this, Xingtian (刑天), the God of War who was beheaded in the war between the, is called on by the spirits of the Isle of Ghosts to find the key (the heart of the isle) to the divine garden and help prevent the end of the world. There are plenty of twists and turns along the way.

Isle of DreamsPhoto Mile End Photography
Isle of Dreams
Photo Mile End Photography

Remarkably, there are just five performers, all shifting with ease between portraying masked characters and manipulating puppets and dolls. Those masks sit atop the actors’ heads, so from the stalls you actually see both clearly. Somehow, puppet designer Yeh Man-ling (葉曼玲) manages to get so much character into the puppet heads that when put with the voices, they almost seem real. Xingtian’s walking talking headless body is achieved with a simple black cloth over his face. There’s a great flesh-eating fish too.

My favourite moment saw three gods, portrayed using no more than heads on poles with a banner for bodies, who constantly weaved and danced, in and around one another as they argued over what should be done while, above, the Queen Mother stirred her cauldron like a witch out of Macbeth. There’s also a very clever scene towards the end when puppets are rapidly interchanged to represent different characters, the switch achieved with a large piece of cloth and two puppet masks.

Act II has less movement-oriented moments, which will make it harder going for those used to watching dance, but it remained engrossing. You just knew that there was one final turn in the story to come, the question was, what would it be?

Isle of Dreams is a real coming together of the talents. Composer Hsu Shu-hui’s (許淑慧) music adds hugely to the atmosphere. I’ll swear I sensed a touch of blues and rap in there at one point. Yang Yu-the’s (楊妤德) costumes and Hsieh Chun-an’s (謝均安) sets are superb, as are Ethan Wang’s (王奕盛) multimedia designs that look almost 3-D in their effect at times.

Marvellous theatre that’s a real feast for all the senses.