When they ask you not to take photos during a performance, it is usually to stop you distracting the actors or infringing someone’s rights. As a rule, it is not because you might rob the actors of their liberty. That, though, is the implication of the warning that precedes This Is Not a Show about Hong Kong. In the wrong hands and in the wrong country, your casual snaps could be evidence for the prosecution. Were this show to be performed in Hong Kong, the collaborators would be risking five years in prison.
This was not meant to happen. Hong Kong was supposed to maintain its autonomy and freedoms until 2047 when the UK was scheduled to cede the region to China. Instead, the Chinese government’s national security bill has ushered in an era of censorship and repression more than 25 years ahead of time. The show’s warning about photography is followed by an audio montage of rules and restrictions – many of them familiar to us, others less so – to suggest lives lived under an increasing burden of oversight.
That is why this is not a show about Hong Kong. A show about Hong Kong would be too risky. Just as state censorship in countries such as Poland and Belarus had the unintended consequence of creating theatre that used metaphor in place of direct commentary, so this production, directed by Max Percy, is impressionistic and often wordless, the speech as likely to be in Cantonese as English. The four actors perform devised scenes, some elliptical, others direct, in a non-linear collage to suggest life lived under duress.
This has strengths and weaknesses. The pace is uneven, the meaning not always clear. Yet it is performed with a commitment, urgency and imaginative range that leaves you in no doubt of the earnest intent.
A phantom pregnancy seems to suggest a lack of future; a self-harming child in need of “special supervision” could be an allegory for Hong Kong’s dependency. “Imagine feeling safe all the time,” says one at the end of a list of impossible dreams and, everywhere, love turns to hate, companionship turns to surveillance and state control leads to psychological damage.