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Rykwert on theatre’s spatial awareness

  • Hong Kong play turns evidence into performance

The Will to Build sounded grimly Maoist, but my affable Hong Kong friends invited me to see this spectacle, improbably promoted by the British Council, and it would have been churlish to refuse. My apprehension at being forcefully edified was due to my ignorance, as well as to my reluctance to read the small print. I should have known, if not about the Theatre du Pif, then at least about the kind of ‘verbatim theatre’ the company practises. Edifying it certainly turned out to be, but not in the obnoxious way I’d feared.

Verbatim theatre makes a collage of reported comments – some overheard, some obtained in interviews – and welds them into a performance. In its present form, it is about 20 years old, and has been used very successfully by more ‘conventional’ playwrights. David Hare turned it into a manifesto against the misdeeds of privatised railway companies and their Blairite protectors in his 2004 play The Permanent Way, while Robin Soans’ Talking to Terrorists (2005), for which the writer interviewed former terrorists and victims of terrorism, had great resonance.

Builders, architects and planners do not seem to make grateful, tragic or comic stuff. In Mozart’s opera The Abduction from the Seraglio (1782), Belmonte only pretends to be an architect to sneak into the Pasha’s harem. In Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder (1892), architect Halvard Solness is a lonely, self-destructive tyrant. Playwright Michael Frayn was much better informed and more engaged with the realities of building in his play Benefactors (1984), though his architect, David Kitzinger, is a benefactor who ‘regenerates’ a blighted neighbourhood by housing its ungrateful denizens in unloved high-rises.

Theatre du Pif was founded in 1992 by Hong Kong’s Bonni Chan and Scotland’s Sean Curran, and was based in Edinburgh for three years before moving to Hong Kong. In The Will to Build, the company sets out to present the audience with the whole gamut of Hong Kong building experience. The voices of citizens, politicians, developers, construction workers, heritage activists and, yes, architects are interwoven with those of the displaced and the dispossessed, those who need a home and those who do not fit into theirs, as well as those who lose their homes, however shabby, to a powerful developer, and those who think an old quarter need not be pulled down for another bit of road-widening.

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