16 August, 2011

Review: King Lear

Photo: Dirk Bleicker
By Órla Murray

Royal Lyceum Theatre
Monday 15 August

Wu Hsing-kuo’s one man performance of King Lear is a profoundly different retelling of Shakespeare’s tragic play, proving that a simple, minimal set juxtaposed with a vivid soundscape is all that is needed to create an engaging and moving backdrop to a solo performance of epic proportions.

This distinctive production of Lear places the classic male eponymous role front and centre, illustrating how challenging the character of Lear is both physically and emotionally for the actor, whilst simultaneously playing up the egoism required to properly command the position.

Act One plays out the internal monologue and mental anguish suffered during Lear’s descent into madness, whilst mixing in the music, sounds and song of traditional Peking Opera style theatre that Wu himself is best known for. There are echoes of postmodernist literature sprinkled sparingly throughout the retelling whereby Wu allows himself - the actor - to speak and remark on his interaction with Lear. These moments between the audience and actor are brief and seem incidental, ensuring it does not feel heavy handed.

Wu manages to pull off an astonishing medley of character transformations in Act Two, when the performance appears to become an abstract extrapolation of Lear’s use of the royal “we” - all the characters are played by this unstoppable force of an actor. The intense emphasis on the eponymous Lear puts a new spin on the old tale, allowing us to feel the difference between Lear’s own tragedy and that of other characters in the story.

Wu is astonishingly nimble when leaping between characters as he tip-toes, stomps and prances about the stage, which allows him to both metaphorically and literally slip between roles. He moves effortlessly into physically demanding sequences of movement accompanied by haunting and atmospheric music. He contrasts almost farcical interpretations of the daughters Goneril and Regan and endearingly funny playings of the Fool and Edgar, with his serious, and unfortunately, brief moments as Edmund, Gloucester and Cordelia. Regardless of the characters though, the action is always either directed to Lear or is Lear.

Light and sound were effectively used to fill the stage, dwarfing the actor and emphasising his aloneness. This is particularly striking in the third and final act when Wu plays out the deaths of Cordelia and Lear with an emotional intensity that takes the audience by surprise. The last haunting visual we see is Lear carrying clothing in a pieta style representing dead Cordelia, just before he himself is lifted high off the stage with a single spotlight fading over his face.

Whilst the production was incredibly striking and deeply touching in parts, there was a distinct inaccessibility hanging over the reinterpretation. For those who are unacquainted with the twists and turns of Shakespeare’s King Lear, this production might not provide sufficient context or explanation to sufficiently engage and enthral as it does for those familiar with the original story. Regardless of this, however, the cultural and aesthetic elements are incredibly beautiful and absorbing, giving ample opportunity for even the most unenthused theatre-goer to find delight and wonder in this blend of Shakespeare and Peking Opera.

 If, indeed one is already a fan of such classical productions, then this is a challenging and ultimately rewarding addition to theatrical interpretations of Lear’s struggles, told in a way which allows the audience to feel the actor’s challenges and thus better understand the character’s profound loneliness. A visually pleasing and aurally distinct piece which showcases both the brilliance of Wu as an actor/writer/director and the distinct traditions of Far East Asia in all their theatrical glory.

King Lear
Contemporary Legend Theatre

13 – 16 August
Royal Lyceum Theatre

The Edinburgh International Festival runs from 12 August – 4 September. Browse and book online at eif.co.uk or call 0131 473 2000.

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