By Jovanni Sy. Directed by Craig Hall. Produced by Gateway Theatre. At the Gateway Theatre on Sunday, April 15. Continues until April 21
There’s a Chinese folk tale about Wu Gang, who is cursed by the gods to endlessly attempt to chop down an osmanthus tree. The tree heals itself with every axe stroke. Wu Gang’s labour is never finished.
In Nine Dragons, Sgt. Tommy Lam (John Ng) compares himself to this mythic figure. It’s 1924, and Tommy has been policing the streets of Hong Kong’s Kowloon district since the turn of the century. He’s got the best record of any cop in the city, but he’s been repeatedly overlooked for promotions and accolades in favour of his white colleagues.
Tommy’s latest toil is the hunt for a serial killer who has a nasty proclivity for severing his victims’ hands and tongues. Along the way, Tommy is tormented by his British superiors and hectored by his lover, the local coroner (Natascha Girgis). His investigation takes him to the titular nightclub, where he interviews Victor Fung (Daniel Chen), the Anglophile son of a wealthy businessman. As events conspire against him, we watch Tommy confront his past and, eventually, the fraying edges of his own moral code.
In its bones, Nine Dragons is a straight-ahead noir thriller. The script relies on familiar tropes—crooning nightclub singers, corrupt institutions, and bloody interrogations. The production follows suit, with director Craig Hall and the performers making conventional choices in the staging and their performances. I’d hoped the production might have taken more opportunities to subvert this familiar genre, as the Electric Company Theatre’s Tear the Curtain did a few years ago.
The one exception to these conservative decisions was Jamie Nesbitt’s lively projections, which washed across Scott Reid’s muted set. They served many purposes—easing transitions and narration, depicting off-screen action, and enhancing the potboiler atmosphere. While they’re a natural fit for such a cinematic genre, they didn’t necessarily jell with the rest of the production. Set against the naturalistic staging and costumes, they felt like a very stylish add-on.
Nine Dragons is a play about identity. In his essay about the show, playwright Jovanni Sy writes that, in Victor and Tommy, he sought to “dramatize the decision most marginalized people face: assimilate (often through erasing essential aspects of oneself) or be relegated to secondary status”.
In this way, the play surpasses its conventional noir mode. The racism—both coarse and subtle—that Tommy endures at the hands of his colonial bosses felt very relevant to 2018. So, too, did a Hong Kong awash in illegal opioids.
About 10 percent of Nine Dragons is in Cantonese, with the English translations projected on the set. For the performance I attended, the English dialogue was also simultaneously translated via surtitles into traditional Chinese. This bilingual dialectic felt very appropriate for a play that’s all about cultures colliding.