PuSh Festival: Two plays put wildly different twists on King Lear

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King Lear is not the sort of fare you’d expect from the edgy, experimental programming favoured by the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, now in its ninth year. But this year’s event features not one, but two plays inspired by William Shakespeare’s tragedy, in which the aging Lear unwisely divides up his daughters’ inheritance on the basis of their professions of love for him. Though both PuSh plays explore questions about the transfer of responsibility between generations, they couldn’t look more different.

Berlin’s She She Pop mingles the literary with the factual in Testament, a deconstruction of Shakespeare’s text in which the creators are joined on-stage by their real-life fathers for a sometimes painful discussion of the realities faced by aging parents and their children. For Taipei’s Contemporary Legend Theatre, King Lear is an opportunity to showcase the conventions of traditional Peking opera—a stylized meld of dance, elaborate costumes, opera music, and percussion—in a three-act show with a single performer, Wu Hsing-Kuo, playing 10 characters. Both shows have been touring internationally to rave reviews.

Testament marks a departure from the techniques usually deployed by She She Pop, an experimental collective of six women and one man. “We’ve been working for a long time and we never used any dramatic text at all,” explains She She Pop’s Lisa Lucassen, on the phone from Berlin. But after repeated offers from “nice theatre directors” who asked the artists “to finally get into canonic literature”, the company members viewed the opportunity as a challenge. “We tried to think of the most difficult piece we could think of, and came up with Lear,” Lucassen recalls, “and then thought, ‘Okay, but let’s make it even more difficult and ask our fathers to join.’ ”

None of the fathers were performers, but many had retired from high-powered professional careers (in fields like architecture, banking, and nuclear physics) that made them very comfortable getting up in front of an audience. “The performing bit didn’t seem to scare them at all,” Lucassen says. “The difficult part was getting them to talk about so-called private things in public.”

Those private things will be familiar to anyone with aging parents. “Are we going to take them into our apartments and actually take care of them and shower them and put adult undergarments on them, or are we not going to do that?” 

Lucassen asks. “And these questions are never answered, of course. Nobody wants to talk about it, either.”

But in Lucassen’s experience, Testament does get audiences talking. “Many feel an urge to call their parents, or even bring them back and see the piece with them,” she says. “Ideally, seeing the piece will open a discussion or at least some kind of reflection on what it’s like to be worried about your parents, or to start thinking about the fact that they will, statistically, die before you do.”

For Contemporary Legend Theatre’s Wu Hsing-Kuo, it was the death of a father figure that inspired his take on King Lear. Wu founded Contemporary Legend Theatre in 1986, in an effort to revitalize traditional Peking opera, a demanding form in which he had trained since childhood, by applying its techniques to classics of the western canon, including works by Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, and Anton Chekhov. Wu’s experiment proved hugely successful, breathing new life into an art form that had been underappreciated in Taiwan, but it led to a falling-out with his mentor, who died before the rift was healed.

In 1998, Wu found himself exhausted after a series of acclaimed productions, and he put the company on hold. During the hiatus, Wu was invited by Théâtre du Soleil director Ariane Mnouchkine to give a workshop in France and to create a short showcase performance. While preparing his piece, Wu dreamed that “his teacher wanted to kill him, but he grabbed his sword and killed his teacher,” recounts Contemporary Legend Theatre’s producer, Lin Hsui-Wei, on the phone from Taipei. “And after that dream, he decided to make King Lear. And so he performed in France, and after the performance, Ariane said, ‘If you don’t go back to your country, if you don’t recover your company, if you don’t perform again, I will kill you.’ ”

Wu evidently took the threat seriously, expanding King Lear into a three-act version that has now been performed in 15 countries, but his mentor passed away in the interim, and the two men hadn’t spoken in several years. Wu’s Lear is in many ways as personal as Testament.

He begins the play with Lear’s mad scene in the storm, featuring vivid costume and percussion, at the end of which Wu removes his outfit—a comment, Lin suggests, on the way in which the rigorous training of Peking opera subsumes individual identity. “You must work very, very hard, from the time you’re 10 or 11 years old,” she says. “You must wake up every morning at 5 o’clock and train and train and train until maybe 9 or 10 o’clock at night. That’s why, in the first part, when he plays King Lear who’s going crazy and yelling in the storm, after that, he takes off the costume and makeup and beard and hair, and says, ‘Who am I?’ ”

That first act consists primarily of dance and music; in the second act, Wu shifts seamlessly between 10 characters from King Lear, drawing on the traditional Sheng, Dan, Jing, and Chou roles of Peking opera. “Those 10 roles are like a model of his teachers,” Lin observes. And the third act, which involves singing, is Wu’s way of “saying sorry to his father, to his teacher, because he never had a chance to say how deeply he loved him, and how sorry he is”.

Though Wu is busy creating a new opera based on texts by Kafka, he plans to keep touring King Lear for at least a few more years. But the show’s demands—“It’s got a lot of acrobatics and fighting and kung-fu movements, and it’s 100 minutes, so he must train himself every day for at least two or three hours”—may require a shifting of responsibility to the younger generation. “He wants to try to find someone who could extend this piece,” says Lin. May he choose wisely.

King Lear runs at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on February 1 and 2. Testament is at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFu Woodward’s in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts.

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