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King Lear - A One-Man Chinese Tragedy

When Shakespeare wrote King Lear, his title character was an angry
figure, so wounded by the seeming betrayal of his favourite daughter
that he isolated himself from the world he could in turn rage against.
Lear is a might role for any actor, and requires stamina as well as
versatility and the weight of wisdom and experience to carry off such a
complex personality. Most productions of Shakespeare's Lear, even in
cash-strapped times, allow full vent to the play's epic nature, in
which even Lear himself is allowed an offstage breather.

Imagine, then, how exhausting it would be for one actor and one actor
alone to play, not just Lear, but all the other characters as well,
from his three warring siblings to their respective spouses and the
court that surrounds them. Such a heroic task is tackled in this year's
Edinburgh International Festival by Wu Hsing-kuo, whose Contemporary
Legend Theatre has long sought to revitalise Chinese theatre by
applying the total theatre techniques of Peking Opera to classical
texts. If Wu's mission sounds potentially foolhardy, however, as he
explains through his translator Miss Lee, such a total absorption of
Lear is a very personal mission.

“Mr Wu likes the character and personality of Lear very much,” Miss Lee
explains, “and he feels he has much in common with him. Lear is angry
and arrogant and self-centred. He is a little crazy, and Mr Wu can
relate to all of that. He feels that people with that kind of
personality are full of confidence, and find it easy to get success.
But on the other hand, they also find it easy to fail, and they find
loneliness, because they are not always easy to get on with.”

If this goes some way to explain Wu's very singular take on Lear,
through Miss Lee he goes even further.

“During Mr Wu's working life it has kind of been like King Lear,” Miss
Lee elucidates. “Lear is such a great man, and what he meets in the
story relates to Mr Wu's own personal background. Mr Wu likes to know
what happens when great men fall down, how they get up again, and how
they find the most precious thing in their hearts.”

Wu may punctuate his comments with laughter as he relates them to Miss
Lee, but, while he doesn't go into specifics, it's clear that the
relationship between Wu's life and art are serious. This has been the
case over forty years stage experience, ever since he was discovered
aged eleven and packed off to the Fu-Hsing Chinese Opera School in
Taiwan, for eight years, where Wu's teacher thought he had what Miss
Lee describes as “a nice voice.” Having specialised inn male martial
roles, Wu went on to study theatre at the Chinese Cultural University,
and became lead dancer with the Cloud Gate Theatre troupe.

Further studies led Wu to broaden his range into playing more
middle-aged and elderly characters, something which has clearly held
him in good stead for King Lear. Wu founded Contemporary Legend Theatre
in 1986 with the aim of reinventing Chinese classical theatre by
adapting major western works with all the accoutrements of Peking opera
at their heart. Wu took on lead roles in Shakespeare, Greek tragedy and
Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot, breaking the mould of Chinese
theatre as the company introduced a form of post-modernism into their
repertoire.

“In Taiwan the theatre is really lively,” Miss Lee explains, “There are
lots of performances that are both easy and difficult to someone in
this kind of environment. You can do anything, but if you want to do a
big show it's very difficult.”

This may go some way to explain both Wu's seemingly mercurial
temperament beyond his self-styled kinship with Lear, and his decision
to do it solo. In 1998, funding problems forced Contemporary Legend
Theatre to pull the plug on its activities for two years. Assorted
productions were proposed to the relevant bodies during that time,
though none were accepted. If Wu's take on King Lear was born out of
austerity, it doesn't take away from its very personal intent.

“There is no tradition of solo performance in traditional Chinese
opera,” Miss Lee points out, “so as an actor Mr Wu wanted to try
something different. Lear is one of the biggest parts he could play,
and he wanted to face up to that challenge.”

Two of the biggest influences on Wu have been on film. The first was
Laurence Olivier's portrayal of the King in a 1983 TV production that
was as stately and as classically impressive as it comes. The second,
and perhaps more interestingly from a western perspective, is Ran,
Akira Kurosawa's 1985 adaptation, which pitted its action among a court
presided over by Lord Hidetora Ichimonji, as played by Japanese star
Tatsuya Nakadai.

“Mr Wu says that there are a lot of great actors in the west,” Miss
Lee relates, “while in China sometimes, the Peking opera style of
acting can be done so superficially that it's not really related to
real life. Mr Wu wants to make the story itself really important, but
also to make it different from Peking opera by making it really mean
something to people. To do this, Mr Wu combines the Chinese style of
acting with western styles.”

Broken up into three parts, Wu's King Lear moves from focussing on the
King himself with a virtuoso display of movement and singing in full
Peking opera style. In sharp contrast, the second part offers up light
relief as Wu takes up the mantle of Shakespeare's cavalcade of
secondary characters, including the chance for some knockabout clowning
through the figure of the Fool. The third part of the play is perhaps
the most crucial, as Wu melds the spirit of Lear with himself.

“During the show show Mr Wu decided he would like to explore Lear
deeper,” Miss Lee explains after conversing with Wu some more. “He felt
that when Lear dies it comes from an extremely lonely scenario, so at
the end of the performance, he would like to discuss success, failure,
love, hate, craziness, and through that act it out as himself, and ask
what is the most important thing in the world when you're a man.”

And the conclusion?

“Actually the conclusion in the show is the loneliness,” Miss Lee
reiterates. “How when a brave man becomes consumed by all these
emotions. Lear says that loneliness is like seeing the moon, but there
is only one moon in the dark sky. Mr Wu relates to how Lear feels, and
he expresses this loneliness in an oriental style.”

King Lear has been in Wu and Contemporary Legend Theatre's repertoire
for more than a decade now. Even so, whatever life changes or personal
upheavals Wu has encountered during that time, he maintains a certain
equilibrium in and possibly through his performances.

“Mr Wu still retains the spirit of King Lear,” Miss Lee says. “The
anger and the loneliness are still there, and Mr Wu doesn't think
that's changed much. He wants to find out what breaks a man's heart,
and from this performance he wants to define who Wu Hsing-kuo is.”

King Lear, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, August 13th-16th, 8pm.
Www.eif.co.uk/lear

The Herald, August 11th 2011

ends

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