Still Don't Know How He Did It: Wu Hsing-kuo's one-man 'King Lear'

The production of King Lear by Contemporary Legend Theater of Taiwan mixes the ancient and the modern to startling effect. As a one-man show featuring Wu Hsing-kuo, who also directed the show and adapted it from its source, King Lear becomes a series of vignettes that dramatize both the high theatricality of Shakespeare’s play as well as what might be thought of as its folklore elements, and ends with a reflection on theater itself.

The story of a king who ill-advisedly chooses to divide his kingdom among his daughters -- Goneril, Regan and Cordelia -- King Lear is also a story of the aged being mistreated by the young.  The harsh treatment of Lear by Goneril and Regan is matched by the story of Gloucester, who foolishly trusts his illegitimate son, Edmund, and becomes a blind and broken man, assisted by his legitimate son Edgar in the disguise of a mad beggar.

Condensing the plot and subplot into a three-act structure running under two hours in length requires a certain skill in dealing in broad strokes. Wu Hsing-kuo’s Lear begins with the madness of Lear, and the scene of his frantic condition in a thunderstorm. Having banished his loyal daughter, Cordelia, and been mistreated by his other daughters, Lear wanders a heath, calling on the gods for comfort. Screens to the right and left of the stage translate the Chinese dialogue, but words are less important in this opening scene than the stylized acting, an interplay of gesture and music. The rapid rhythms of the Lee Yi-Chin’s score create an anxious texture that seems to surround Lear, producing an atmosphere of confusion and conflict.

Costumes (by Tim Yip) are also of great importance to the production, as the long flowing hair and beard of Lear are expressive devices as used by Wu, as are his truly majestic robes. Seeing such an impressive figure flail about the stage, wringing his hands, doing flips and falls, we know at once he’s mad and the entire scene becomes a great man’s struggle with his own nature. If the great can become the low, where can certainty be found? Wu’s Lear is a study of warring mannerisms that finally ends with the king humbled, placing flowers in his hair while recalling giving a flower to his youngest daughter whose loss he now mourns.

At this point Wu emerges from his King Lear costume and speaks to us an actor or, as he says, Lear’s storyteller. Having set aside the costume of Lear he indicates that there is more to the story, and the first act ends.

The second act is all about transformations as Wu begins in the character of Lear’s Fool who enlivens the tale from the perspective of the lowly. At first he was no better than Lear’s dog, but now he sees Lear as a foolish king, reduced to a figure of fun. Wu’s monologue as the Fool skillfully establishes satire as an attitude toward Lear’s court, and this view is extended into his enactments of the three daughters. This part of the play, in which Wu costumes himself in the regal trappings of the emperor’s daughters, and depicts the vain and deceitful characters of Goneril and Regan, with all the  grace of Beijing opera, is striking, creating a world of ritual manners, in contrast to the lowly Fool’s bent-knee postures, that is beguiling but also comical.

After Cordelia strikes a sincere contrast to her sisters, Wu transforms again — giving us in brief the story of Edmund’s false defense of his father Gloucester, Edgar’s transformation into “poor Tom,” and finally, and most dramatically, Gloucester’s search for death on a high cliff. Having said that, I still don’t know how Wu managed to recreate all these scenes in such rapid succession; I do know that the image of Gloucester on the rocks surrounded by mist and the surging sounds of the ocean will stay with me for a while.

Gloucester’s leap to darkness is followed by a voice narrating the eventual reconciliation of Gloucester and Edgar, and this introduces the last act: Wu Hsing-kuo in his own character as the Actor. Speaking still within the stylized context of the play, Wu addresses us as an actor who is a character and a character who is an actor. At once, the skillful transformations we have watched become a series of artificial identities that trap the Actor.

The final speech comments on a quality of the play that is hard to pin down: these roles are not only Shakespeare’s, but were selected by him from older sources, and, in this current form, now translated into the words and rhythms and costumes of Chinese theater, they take on a wider application, a global reach we might say. And this new formulation of Lear shows how the situations in the play—the family drama, the generational tensions, the class elements, the archetypal nature of a blind man being led by a mad man—have become emblematic myths told about the human condition. Wu’s final statements struck me as a realization not only of the tragedy of Lear, but of the sorrow of theater itself as a world that can only pretend to be true.

Wu Hsing-kuo and the Contemporary Legend Theater of Taiwan have memorably transformed King Lear into an experience of theater as both timeless and contingent.


IF YOU GO: Who: King Lear by the Contemporary Legend Theater of Taiwan When: 8 p.m. June 29 Where: University Theatre, 222 York St. Tickets: $35-$45 Info:

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