JOYCE MCMILLAN on WU HSING-KUO AND KING LEAR for the Scotsman Edinburgh Festival Preview, March 2011
IF THE 2011 Edinburgh International Festival is all about the intense cross-currents of mutual inspiration between western and Asian cultures, then it’s hard to imagine a show that would embody that relationship more intensely than the Wu Hsing-Kuo’s acclaimed solo version of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Born in Taiwan in 1953, Wu Hsing-Kuo lost his father when he was a year old, and threw himself with great and sometimes fiery passion into his studies as a trainee theatre artist, building a high-profile career. Yet his King Lear – first seen in Taipei ten years ago, and admired across Asia and America for its powerful combination of classic western material and traditional Peking Opera performance style – was a show born out of anger and frustration; and shaped, in its solo form, by Wu Hsing-Kuo’s tense relationship with the arts funding structure in his country.
“It all began,” says Wu Hsing-Kuo, “back in the 1980’s, when some young friends and I had founded the Contemporary Legend Theatre in Taipei. We went on a world-wide tour with Kingdom Of Desire, our large-scale version of Macbeth; and in Japan, I met the great director Yukio Ninagawa, who said that he felt I was born to play King Lear, although I felt that I was probably too young to play him at that time. So the idea of creating a production of King Lear was always in my mind.
“Then at the end of the 1990’s, there came a time when our company didn’t have much financial support. So we stopped making theatre, and I went travelling in Europe. I went to France, to Ariane Mnouchkine’s Theatre Du Soleil, and I had a lot of thinking time about what theatre is, and how it should develop. In a way, I was like King Lear himself, wandering without a home! We had created a lot of shows at Contemporary Legend Theatre, but they were directed in a way that was too big and costly for the resources we had at that time. I wanted to make a show that was smaller in size and simpler in style, but that was stll really aesthetic and powerful.
“So that’s how the idea of the solo King Lear was born. In a sense, too, I was personally attracted to to this story as a way of expressing myself, and my feelings. It’s a play that, like no other, represents feelings of anger and craziness. At first, it looks like a story about a crazy, stubborn old man. But you can see that inside King Lear, his thought is full of rage and unhappiness – he is not satisfied. And my character is like King Lear’s; as an artist, I like to work in a way that is very open and free, but when we apply for financial support, we are often examined very strictly, and made to work in more conventional ways. So I am frustrated too!”
For all his sense of connection with Shakespeare’s play, though, Wu Hsing-Kuo’s version of Lear is not a conventional account of the story; instead, the two-hour show is divided into three parts, the first focussing on the play’s story, the second on its more comic and playful aspects, and the third on the relationship between the actor and reality. “Yes, I have divided the show into three acts, called Play, Playing and Player, and over these three acts I play ten characters. I use the four basic techniques of Peking Opera, which are singing, chanting, acting and acrobatics or movement, including martial arts. I also use the four main character types of Peking Opera, the young man, the girl, the old man, and the clown. And the costume is very important, quite elaborate and beautiful, and full of meanings; I wear some parts of it upside down, for example, to signify madness.
“So how do people in Asia today see Shakespeare? I would say that of those who go to the theatre, half of them are very interested, and believe that Shakespeare is really great, an old master who tells people what it is to be human, and makes them feel what society is. In that way, his work is similar to our traditional opera; it talks of ethics and morality, and of how we should live.
“Those who have a more modern attitude, though, probably don’t like Shakespeare so much. They would see him as old-fashioned, and out of touch with modern society. But my aim in my work has always been to take classic material and make it feel new, by working creatively with it. That’s why our company has always been called Contemporary Legend; because we try to take traditional stories, with all the power of legend and myth, and to present them in ways that will have meaning for contemporary audiences.”
King Lear at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 13-16 August.