It’s often said of Shakespeare that his work is universal. Unfortunately, this statement is very rarely put to the test. Sure, plenty of directors try to set Shakespeare in various times and places, but it’s almost always within a western context. Wu Hsing-Kuo’s King Lear, however, not only tests this theory, it revolves around it. Wu, a master of Peking Opera, a theater form whose conventions differ greatly from those we’re used to, has found King Lear to be a play about the very Chinese theme of filial responsibility, as well as finding within it a personal connection with Lear. Using this as a starting point, Wu has put together a dazzling one-man show, interpreting Shakespeare’s work through the lens of Peking Opera’s conventions. His performance demonstrates that perhaps the important thing isn’t that everyone comes away from a Shakespeare work with the same, universal message, but rather that different people, coming at the work from different angles, can keep finding new ones.
Peking Opera is a highly stylized form of theater characterized by elaborate costumes, singing, acrobatics, martial arts, and highly specific character types. The sheng is the main male role; the dan is any female role; a chou is a clownish role. Traditionally, as was the case in Elizabethan theater, men played all these roles, though women now share the stage. Wu shows the breadth of his versatility by taking on all of these role types and applying them to the characters in King Lear. The Fool is, obviously, a chou. When portraying the three daughters, Wu adopts the costume of a dan, slightly altering some of his accessories to move between them. For the other male roles, Wu explores the subtypes of sheng: Lear is a laosheng, a redfaced, dignified older male. The thematic relevance of the character types is perhaps clearest in the characters of Edmund and Edgar; as they are opposites, two sides of a coin, it is only fitting that they should both fall withing variations of a single character type. The noble, pure Edgar is a xiaosheng, a fresh-faced young man. The hotheaded, quarrelsome Edmund is played as a wusheng, a male role calling for skill in martial arts and acrobatics.
Experiencing this style of theater would be quite the experience even without the Shakespearian element. The music, the vocals, the costumes, the stylized movements seem very foreign, at first, but one eventually comes to appreciate them for their effectiveness in communicating the story, perhaps more so for communicating a story we’re already acquainted with in a fashion with which most in the audience are unacquainted. The costumes are dazzling, the music enthralling, and it’s always surprising to see how the characters are represented through the Chinese theater form. When Wu performs the encounter between Gloucester and Edgar, we see how little he needs the pomp of the elaborate costuming and acrobatics to portray characters, as he alternates quickly between them via changes in mannerism and voice alone.
As an exhibition of Chinese theater, Wu’s production succeeds, from the jarring beginning to the powerful end, in engrossing the audience. The fact that the show is King Lear would seem to take a second seat. The show amounts to a free-form selection of scenes, and the theme that ostensibly ties all the scenes and characters together—filial responsibility—is unfortunately never brought enough to the fore. Further, the show is at its best when Wu is sticking to the script or, at least, to the play. The show seems to unravel during the drawn out existential reflections that occur when Wu plays himself, struggling with who he is, and returning to the refrain, “I am Lear. I am destined to be Lear.” The problem is that he never makes it explicit why he feels connected to Lear, or why he feels drawn to it, or what personal connections he has to the work, or what he has found in it that affects him so, merely that he struggles with his own identity, and this has something vague to do with King Lear. While Wu’s production is fascinating to watch, it is lacking some of the substance it promises.