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Performance Preview: Wu Hsing-kuo as King Lear

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Performance Preview: Wu Hsing-kuo as King Lear

In a unique blend of awe-inspiring virtuosity of Beijing Opera acting style and visually stunning Western stagecraft, the celebrated Taiwanese actor Wu Hsing-kuo adapts themes and relationships from Shakespeare’s monumental tragedy of power and deception, King Lear. Delivering a one man tour de force, Wu Hsing-kuo simultaneously depicts multiple characters, from the maniacal Lear and his ally Gloucester, to his evil, grasping daughters and the pitiful, lonely Fool. Get your tickets now to see him on Friday, January 25.

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We recently asked him some questions about adapting the performance.

Q1: What was your first encounter with King Lear?

Answer: When I first read the script, I felt it is not a very dramatic story. It has no spectacle of war, no dramatic event to generate exciting emotions. The only thing I could feel about this 80-year-old man is his stubbornness. Through Shakespeare’s words I felt King Lear’s stubbornness already reached the level of being hysteric. Because of his wrong decision, he loses his kingdom and power. After being driven out by his daughters, he can not accept such a cruel result. Ten years ago, I saw the great British actor Laurence Olivier’s performance of King Lear. Being deeply moved by his performance, I fell in love with the play.  

Q2: What was it about the play that triggered your creativity?

Answer: I felt that through those words of sorrow and loneliness the play expresses a profound nature of human beings—love. Love is human nature; it makes me feel that life has gone back to the beginning. It impacted me to recollect my childhood when I had no father’s love. My personality comes close to that of King Lear, stubborn, capricious, dominant and short-tempered. I do what I want to do, and don’t care other people’s opinions. Since I started my performance career, I always played such leading roles as a king and a general. The stage was my kingdom. To fulfill my dreams and to attain my goals, I would overcome all difficulties that I come across. King Lear also reminded us to respect elders. When I was in the school, my teacher was like my father. When I saw King Lear’s tragic ending, I took pity on him; and it inspired my imagination. To me, King Lear symbolizes a father image, especially for an orphan as I am. It reflects the relationship between me and my masters, and that of the inheritance and destruction of tradition. It also symbolizes Taiwan’s current corruption and fissure of political and cultural situation that causes frustration in seeking identity. I’ve combined Chinese culture and Western theater to express my sentiment for this play. In Act I of my adaptation, for example, when King Lear is in the wild, I take off my wig, beard, and costume. I become myself, WU Hsing-kuo. But I am still delivering King Lear’s line: “Who am I? Does anyone know me?” King Lear, actor, and Wu Hsing- kuo thus co-exist in the same space and time; and tradition and modernity are at war with each other inside me. And the scene also questions the meaning of existence and the essence of drama. 

Q3: Could you tell me more about the process of adapting King Lear for a solo performance?

Answer: After seeing my performance in The Kingdom of Desire in Japan [in 1993], Mr. Ninagawa told me: “Wu Hsing-kuo, you are King Lear!” He suggested that I perform the role, but I felt at that time I was too young to play King Lear, an 80-year-old man. He said that if I waited until I grew older, I might not have enough energy to play King Lear. Ten years later, I discovered that it was a really difficult task, especially when I opted to perform solo. Lear is a crazy and angry man. I needed vast energy to perform his pride and capriciousness. In 1998, director Mnouchkine of Le Theatre Du Soleil saw my performance of The Kingdom of Desire in the Avignon Festival. She invited me to come to France in 2000 to conduct a workshop and to perform at the Odeon theatre, Paris. It happened to be the time when I chose to close my company because of the lack of budget and performing talents. At that time, I felt like King Lear. I lost my playing company, wandered alone in France, and felt the pain of being exiled. Right after I performed my adaptation of King Lear in Paris, director Mnouchkine grabbed my shoulder and said agitably, “Hsing-kuo, if you aren’t going back on stage, I am going to kill you!” 

After coming back to Taiwan that year, I decided to rebuild my company. I swore to myself that, even if I were the only member left in the whole company, I would perform on the streets. And yet, luckily, thanks to the support of KU Huai-chun, Executive Director of Novel Hall, Taipei, King Lear had its premiere in 2001. The production forged for the company a whole new experimental pathway; it also contributed to the birth, in 2005, of my adaptation of Waiting for Godot. 

Q4: In your adaptation, you used the plot of Lear and his three daughters and that of Gloucester and his two sons as the main story lines of your play. You seemed to show a special concern for such issues as transmission and generation conflict. Did it have anything to do with ethical culture in China?

Answer: “Heaven, earth, king, parents, and teachers” represents for Chinese people a universal philosophy of life. My father passed away when I was one year old. Being fatherless, deep down I regarded my teachers as my parents. When I was twenty-six years old, I formally kowtowed to my master CHOU Cheng-Jung. The ancient ceremony was the first time ever seen in Taiwan; and it was also the only open ceremony. But later, because of the founding of the Contemporary Legend Theatre, which ran against my master’s mission to hand down his art, my master could not forgive me and thus the relationship broke. It resembled severing father and son relationship. As I was adapting King Lear in France, I dreamed a dream, in which my master wanted to kill me with a sword, and I was forced to take away his sword and kill him. The dream shocked me. Two months after my coming back to Taiwan, my master passed away unexpectedly. The whole thing explained why I could understand the father/son conflict and the emotional pain between Gloucester and Edgar, the conflict and pain that made Edgar opt not to recognize his own father even when they met. In my adaptation, I used the two ends of a rod to enact alternately the two roles of Gloucester and Edgar. As Peking Opera actors, being disciplined by a rod used to be a part of our learning process. We also made use of rods in our training. The meaning of a rod was mixed. It represented the memories of both love and hate. 

Q5: Was the experience of adapting King Lear very different from that of adapting Macbeth? How do you compare the two?

Answer: When I was working on The Kingdom of Desire, I was only 30 years old. I was full of energy and ambition. In the play, I developed and created my kingdom. I had 23 actors and 16 musicians for this production. It was a magnificent time for me. In King Lear, Lear loses his kingdom. The situation is totally opposite. He is full of regret, anger, loneliness and sadness. On the stage, only WU Hsing-kuo is yelling, acting crazy and silly, happy and sad; playing old man and young man, man and woman. Most of these images were derived from renowned players of the past. In Act I, I take off my costume and throw it heavily upon the ground. In Act II, I play the roles of Sheng, Dan, Jing and Chou to pay respect to the masters who blazed the stage in the past. In Act III, I solemnly hold my costume (as if I am holding Cordelia’s deceased body), and chant in endless regret, integrating King Lear’s life closely with my personal life memory and turning the great tragedy into the life history of a Peking Opera actor born and raised in Taiwan. It invoked much foreign media discussion.