PuSh International Performing Arts Festival and the Asian Canadian Special Events Association
King Lear
adapted from William Shakespeare's King Lear by Wu Hsing-Kuo

Dates and Venue 1 - 2 February 2013, 8.00pm |The Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts, 777 Hornby Street

Director and performer Wu Hsing-Kuo Set Designer Chang Wang Lighting Designer Tommy Wong/ Wong Choo Yean Costume Designer Tim Yip Vocal Composer Lee Men Music Composer Lee Yi-Chin Calligrapher Chang Wang

Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson

Wu Hsing-Kuo, writer, performer, director and Artistic Director of Taiwan's Contemporary Legend Theatre presents a King Lear in an entirely new and vivid way. Visually rich, it is a virtuoso performance in dance, song, speech, combat and even acrobatics, the apparatus of Chinese Opera technique.  In this he is accompanied by a nine-member, off-stage band playing Chinese instruments.

Wu trained in Chinese Opera from an early age and founded the Contemporary Legend Theatre to revive this fading art form and make it one for the present day. Solo work such as this is not traditional.

Nor is his approach to King Lear. Others have deconstructed Shakespeare or created one-man shows but Wu's way is to search for Lear's identity and to express it through the physical and stylized techniques of Chinese Opera.

He begins with all the dramatic panoply at his disposal - luridly-coloured overhead lighting, gorgeous embroidered robes, strongly made-up face, long white beard and floating hair, this Lear is incandescent with rage. Shaking from head to toe he stamps dramatically around the stage to agitated music. Eventually thunder and lightning strike him to the ground and he wakes mad. This is followed by tender recollections of Cordelia. Wu ends the first act by stepping out of his role, removing his wig and beard and in his own person asking, Who is Lear?  Where is Lear?

The opening of the second act is less grand and peopled by the major characters of the play, the stock characters of folk tale and morality play which lurk beneath Shakespeare's fully-fleshed creations being married to Chinese Opera stereotypes, leading to some unexpected results. The tone is at first light and playful.  The Fool is a wonderful creation, though very different in expression from Shakespeare's - he does a splendid dog impression - ends his scene in a search for Lear which was both comic and pathetic.  Goneril is surprisingly graceful and coquettish.  The tone darkens with a thoroughly villainous Edmond and Wu presents a memorable Gloucester silhouetted on a clifftop against an aural background of surging waves.  The brief, somewhat opaque,  last act shows Wu as himself, musing as he rises above the stage like the moon, presumably still searching for Lear.  

The theatrical energy Wu Hsing-Kuo brings to the stage demonstrates his clear mastery of his art form. But this is not a production that will appeal to all. The gestures and facial expressions of Chinese Opera that may signal considerable import will slide by unnoticed by the non-initiate. Language is a major difficulty. Although video screens projected very clear sur-titles, the text was difficult to understand. The script was largely not by Shakespeare and it was difficult to decide whether roughness in the language was due to translation from Mandarin or a deliberate choice. On the rare occasion a small block of lines from King Lear did appear, their resonance enhanced what was happening on stage; so that for an English-speaking audience at least, more attention to text would make this production considerably more graspable.  For some of the other characteristics of Chinese Opera style, I suggest that if you understand how coloratura singing can carry emotion, or are moved by abstract ballet or dance, then you can begin to see how emotion and sense are conveyed through the voice and body with very different gestures than in Western art, but with similar purpose. 

Dramatic, melodramatic perhaps, special effects and lighting by Wong Tommy were equalled by Tim Yap's gorgeous costumes and balanced by a spare, though rather heavy set by Chang Wang.  A fairly literal soundscape charmed with birdsong or crashed with surf and the music, composed by Lee Yi-Chin, was excellently performed.

© 2013 Elizabeth Paterson