Complex characters drive a whodunit

Craig Hall, artistic director of Vertigo Theatre and director of Nine Dragons.| Photo courtesy of Gateway Theatre.

Nine Dragons, a play set in 1920s Hong Kong, traces the journey of Tommy Lam, Hong Kong’s best detective, as he struggles against both the criminals and the colonial system that shape his job and his life.

The show runs at the Gateway Theatre April 12–21, and is a co-production with Vertigo Theatre and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.

Setting the stage

Written by Jovanni Sy, Nine Dragons is a crime thriller set in colonial Hong Kong. Lam is a detective on the police force, but though he is the best detective around, the colonial system and blanket discrimination in his home-country means he is always being held back from reaching his full potential.

“Tommy is an extraordinary character,” says Craig Hall, director of the show. “He’s Sherlock Holmes-like, very capable, but he’s hit by a glass ceiling, held back because of who he is. He struggles with his cultural identity in a world where who he is creates barriers.”

Hall is also the artistic director of Vertigo Theatre, a company that devotes itself specifically to mystery theatre.

“I’ve always been drawn to the genre,” says Hall. “Mystery, police procedure, ghost stories; they’re all rife with potential to both entertain and shock.”

Jovanni came to Hall five years ago, when he was writing the piece, with a request for them to try and help him nail the genre.

“We saw huge potential in it, and we helped him develop it,” says Hall.

The mystery genre can sometimes be seen as simply a world of “whodunits” − full of plays that are purely entertainment-driven, but Hall pushes back against that idea. He sees the genre as richer than that, and while he still wants to make sure its viewers are entertained, he wants this show to pack a well-rounded punch.

“We get the tropes,” he says, “the archetypes of the characters, it’s a fun night out; but there’s a social core to this piece. I’m hoping the audience is entertained, but that there’s something that resonates beyond just a fun evening out at the theatre.”

One of the pieces of the social core is a struggle with cultural identity, and it’s something that not only Lam but a multitude of characters attempt to deal with on-stage.

“They’re making their way in a time where they’re not empowered,” says Hall, “but through their nature and audacity they’re burning a new path. There’s also some moral ambiguity in this piece; everyone is working inside and outside of the law, making complex moral choices that make them much more interesting. They’re complex characters, not just heroes and bad guys.”

Filling the role

John Ng plays Tommy Lam in Nine Dragons.| Photo by Tim Nguyen.

The character of Lam will be played by John Ng, an actor who has been a part of the development of the show since its initial stages around five years ago.

“I knew Jovanni from way back,” says Ng. “When he wrote the play, I became involved in the initial workshop and its development. He said that the Tommy Lam character was perfect for me, so I’ve been a part of it since.”

Ng himself is originally from Hong Kong, as he was born and raised there before moving to Ottawa at the age of eight. When he was a child, Hong Kong was still under British rule so he has an understanding of the history Nine Dragons represents − and an appreciation of Lam’s struggles.

“Tommy’s main motivation is to prove people wrong,” says Ng. “To show that we, as Chinese citizens, can fulfill our own destiny; we don’t need to rely on Europeans in order to succeed.”

The mystery and crime thriller genre is one that Ng had never worked in until this show, so he is excited to bring the character of Lam and the world of Nine Dragons onto the stage at the Gateway Theatre.

“I want the audience to feel like they’ve gone through a roller-coaster ride,” he says, “because of all the twists and turns in the plot. I hope that they want to see more of the character, see more of him trying to solve different cases.”

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