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Reviewed by:
  • King Lear
  • Alexander C.Y. Huang
King Lear. By William Shakespeare. Directed by David Tse Ka-Shing. Yellow Earth Theatre and Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, Shanghai. The Cube at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK. 1511 2006.

One of the frequently highlighted themes of King Learin its recent stage history is miscommunication and intergenerational conflicts. Intercultural exchange and translation processes heightened these themes as King Learreceived a Mandarin–English bilingual makeover in a highly experimental British–Chinese coproduction adapted and directed by London-based David Tse (known in China as Xie Jiasheng). Playing to full houses throughout the United Kingdom, the production was part of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) Complete Works Festival. (The production also played in Shanghai and Chengdu in October 2006. [For a review of the Shanghai production, see Claire Conceison's review in this issue.]) Tse employed bilingual dialogues and surtitles in both languages to explore the promise and perils of cultural translation and multiculturalism in the context of a domestic tragedy. Tse's production followed on Ong Keng Sen's internationally acclaimed, English-surtitled, multilingual Lear(1996), a production that launched the exploration of postnational Asian Shakespearean performances.

Following Shakespeare's text with a modern twist, interwoven with Chinese lines adapted from Zhu Shenghao's widely performed translation, a mixed cast of Chinese and British actors explored the question of translatability of cultures. The adaptation employed Buddhist-themed music, future–retro costumes with both Western and Chinese features, an ensemble, mobile phones, text-messaging, aerial work, multimedia elements, and Peking Opera percussion patterns and movements to embody the anxieties of diasporic artists and the uneasy coalition among different cultures. The duel between Edgar (Daniel York) and Edmund (Matt McCooey) proved particularly memorable. Performed to Peking Opera percussion beats as the actors engaged in a highly stylized ritualistic fight using flip knives, the scene seemed reminiscent of the violence—staged to a videogame rhythm—in RSC's Romeo and Julietdirected by Nancy Meckler during the same season in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Tse's Learforegrounded the metaphor of translation not only through hybrid performance idioms and uses of two languages, but also through stage design and costumes. Entering the theatre, the audience was confronted with a brightly lit open stage with sparse scenery within close proximity of the seats. At center stage stood three interlaced screens made of rectangular reflective panels and illuminated by techno-blue light and videos (of a crying newborn) and texts projected onto them, evoking both ancient armor and contemporary skyscraper. Most of the action took place in front of the screens, which were transformed through lighting from a regal façade to a semi-transparent video screen to the wilderness for the storm scene. If the stage design suggested Taoist simplicity and postmodern minimalism, the costumes evoked a fusion of Chinese and Western elements. Edmund wore a leather skirt, while Edgar's costume bore hints of traditional Chinese robes. Kent (He Ju) appeared in a page outfit with a wig, and Lear (Zhou Yemang, a Chinese film star) wore a velvet regal robe with a white shirt underneath and leaned on a cane, symbolizing both his power and frailty. The Fool was replaced by a chorus in white cloaks, which created a rhythmic chanting when delivering its lines in unison. The ensemble dramatized Lear's conscience. The sharp-suited Goneril (Zhang Lu) and Regan (Xie Li) evoked the femme fatales in the global boomtown that is twenty-first-century Shanghai.

Set in the London and Shanghai of 2020, the adaptation opened with an updated division-of-the-kingdom (now division-of-assets) scene. Lear, a Chinese business tycoon, solicited confessions of love from his three daughters in the Shanghai penthouse office of his multinational corporation. Lear, Regan, and Goneril were present and spoke fluent and elegant Chinese, while the English-educated Cordelia—standing behind a semi-transparent screen—conversed on a video link from London. No longer proficient in Mandarin, Cordelia could only say nothing. As Goneril and Regan carried on their flattering confessions of love, Chinese fonts projected onto the screen panels and covered Cordelia's face. Of interest ontologically and dramaturgically...


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