- Lear Dreaming
My expectations were high for this revisiting of the King Lear theme that the auteur-director Ong Keng Sen first explored in 1997. Ong is a celebrated figure in intercultural theatre practice, mounting works in New York and European Festivals as well as in Asia.1 His works are studied as intercultural performances in theatre journals and books on performance, and this was an opportunity to see how he remounts a work that gained international popular applause and yet also roused critical hackles (a cultural pastiche, thought some; an appropriation of Western intercultural bad practices by an Asian subject, said others; politically incorrect or hyper-masculinist, said a few when it first played).2 Aesthetically, this 2012 performance was strong, with striking visual design, virtuoso performers, and unexpected juxtapositions. Nō master-performer Umewaka Naohiko re-enacted his role as Lear. The only trained actor onstage, he was accompanied by music artists rather than “actors” to fill the other roles. All of these performers had considerable intercultural musical experience. Contemporary female pipa virtuoso Wu Man played Lear’s ungrateful Daughter, and she has been a major collaborator with Yo-Yo Ma on his Silk Road project. Kang Kwon Soon, a leading female vocalist of traditional Korean court music (junga) and a member of the Tori ensemble who has collaborated in creating Korean fusion jazz, played Lear’s (dead) wife. Piterman, a specialist in the Minang music-dance-theatre (dikia rabano) of Sumatra who has collaborated with noted modern dance artist Boi Gumarang Sakti, played the loyal fool. Japanese expert Toru Yamanaka provided electronic music, and celebrated Javanese composer Rahayu Supanggah led a contemporary ensemble of gamelan musicians. Set design (Justin Hill), lights (Scott Zielinski), costume (Mitsushi Yanaihara), and graphics (Hanson Ho) were crucial to the work and made the piece a feast for the eyes.
The lavish production also raised questions about intercultural work for me as a Filipino theatre scholar who has not previously experienced such intercultural projects. I will describe the production, note some of the alterations [End Page 532] from the 1997 version, and give my own response to the work as a Southeast Asian viewer, acknowledging that what formed my deepest critique may not have been consciously intended by the director. But unequal cultural capital, persistent historical memory, and current economic realities ground art creation and viewing. While some issues regarding gender representation that were raised in the original production were rebalanced in this one, the intercultural inequalities born of casting ethnic bodies in certain roles seemed even more striking in this reincarnation.
Part of the 2012 Singapore Arts Festival, Lear Dreaming re-imagines the Shakespearean tragedy “on patriarchy and succession through the pristine philosophy of Japanese Noh theatre” (Lear Dreaming Program 2012). Ong, an Asian postmodern director who trained at New York University (MA, 1995) and has regularly toured the international festival scene, has, like Robert Wilson or Suzuki Tadashi, adopted an auteur approach to the classic he adapts. He emphasized during a post-show dialogue that this piece, which was written by Japanese author Kishida Rio, is no longer the Shakespearean tragedy, though it derived inspiration from it. For example, in the Shakespearean text, Lear has three daughters: the betraying Goneril and Regan and the loving Cordelia. In Ong and Kishida’s rendition, the Old Man (Lear character) has only two daughters, only one of whom has lines and (in 2012) only one of these two appears onstage; however, we get the impression that the Old Man favors her, referring to the absent one as his “daughter” and never using the term for the present child. Thus Goneril and Regan are combined into the solo Daughter, and the absent daughter (Cordelia character) is only discussed.
The missing daughter, as mentioned by Ong during the post-show dialogue, was a strategy to embody the “presence of an absence.” Other changes include the onstage presence of Lear’s wife (albeit as a ghost), someone not encountered in Shakespeare and who...