Carys D. Coburn

In early 2022 I went to a work-in-progress of WANDER WANDER WILD WILD 遊遊野野 by Choy-Ping Clarke-Ng 吳彩萍 . Stage right, a spill of red cloth from the ceiling that becomes a runway leading into the audience. On it, Choy-Ping sits at a desk. They’re wearing red to match their backdrop, something sleeveless that shows their tattoos. Stage left a screen. On it appear settings, characters, subtitles as we hear the characters’ pre-recorded voices in a variety of languages.

WWWW/ 遊遊野野 takes a real-world point of departure and runs with it – the suggestion by Ivan Ko, property billionaire, that a city for 500,000 Hong Kongers be built in County Louth in Ireland. Choy-Ping imagines an unspecified future time where this has happened, with the qualification that Ivan revised his city’s population down by an order of magnitude to a modest 50,000.

The action follows the inhabitants of an apartment building in this city as they get to know one another, reflect on their lives, dance to “Funky Town” sung in Cantonese by Pancy Lau. A ghostly figure wearing a dress containing goldfish passes through. This is a work-in-progress, so she’s a drawing projected on a screen. But there’s a paradox here, a little like that which attends recorded sound. Amplification means you can speak very quietly into a mic and still be heard in playback – the recorded voice can be both louder and more intimate than the projected stage voice. Similarly, a drawing of a ghost is both less real and more incontrovertible. There are no infelicities of costume or performance to upstage the figure’s otherworldliness.

The credits on Choy-Ping’s website list three translators for the voices we hear: Jennifer Lau for Cantonese, Wendy Wong for Mandarin, and Maggie Tan for Hakka. Where comprehension was essential, they were subtitled. I don’t remember if the languages were distinguished in subtitles, but I don’t think they were. If you didn’t know enough to tell them apart, tough. I don’t speak any of them, but I know enough about Cantonese and Mandarin tones to listen for shibboleths while reading in English. And something about that was really absorbing.

You could compare it to the experience of listening to Anno – Anna Meredith’s re-composition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – or a Bach fugue re-orchestrated by Schoenberg. There is a baseline level of familiar meaning you can take for granted, but it’s been re-constellated into an unfamiliar shape. The cliché about subtitles is that they’re distancing, but can’t estrangement lead to deeper appraisal as easily as it can to disengagement? You become attentive to the grain of language rather than its content. Or I did anyway.

It’s important to specify where comprehension was essential. Choy-Ping’s work often plays with opacity. Just when you are relaxing into the rhythm of hearing and reading, listening to the rises and falls of a language you don’t speak and navigating them with a guide-rail of subtitles, the subtitles disappear. You’re left with naked language, that you may or may not understand depending on your linguistic competencies. It’s confronting but not unconsidered. I think their dual practice as a writer/designer is bound up with this kind of boldness. Because words are not their exclusive métier, they are less romantic about them, less inclined to get defensive about their supposed power to shape the world like nothing else. Legibility is guaranteed where necessary, but it’s not a virtue to the exclusion of all others. Choy-Ping is very skilled in showing us language as object rather than tool, one stage-phenomenon evolving over time amongst many.

Unfinished as it is, I love this show already. More than that: I think it is an unforgivable failure of courage and imagination that no Irish theatre or company has produced it yet. And I can unpack it for you: formally, thematically, politically, there is very little work being made in Ireland that dares as much as Choy-Ping’s.

The most generous I can be to the people with the money is that what I loved about it is, I suspect, precisely what scared them off. The piece was spare. It moved fast. If you didn’t come in knowing why there were protests in Hong Kong throughout 2019-2020, the piece wasn’t going to tell you. And yet, it spoke to me, which is not to say I understood it. I have Chinese ancestry but my mother’s an adoptee, so I don’t even know what specific heritage language I haven’t learned to speak. I cannot say that I encounter Choy-Ping’s work with a thrill of recognition and connection. I do encounter it with excitement, joy, respect, pleasurable discombobulation. I do see in it someone picking the same political fights I’m picking, for similar but far from identical reasons.

A final thought on Ping’s use of language as object rather than tool. An object doesn’t demand that we discuss it in the same way as a paragraph of argument does. It only asks that we encounter it. Its meaning is as much affective, sensory, bodily, as it is discursive, and it is those things before it calls up language in us. The impact it has on us is what drives our search for the right words for it. Which, broadly, is what I think all the best design work does – when it’s allowed to.


Carys D. Coburn is a playwright and theatre-maker, whose work balances character and concept, feelings and footnotes.