King Lear

After William Shakespeare, adapted by Wu Hsing-kuo
Contemporary Legend Theatre, Taipei
Royal Lyceum Theatre

Contemporary Legend Theatre from Taipei show how different an eastern sensibility can make a familiar play.

Wu Hsing-kuo has written and directed the performance and is the sole actor on stage, although he is joined by a band of nine musicians playing instruments including the jing'erhu, yueqin, ba and xiaoluo.

The first act, lasting 35 minutes, starts with an oriental overture, introducing an elderly man with a flowing white mane and beard some 30 inches long.

This colourfully dressed figure dances and sings his way through a prologue that takes up the remainder of the act.

After a rather premature interval, the second act reveals the core of the play and becomes richly entertaining as Mr Wu, in gorgeous costumes designed by Tim Yip, transforms himself.

From Lear and a mischievous Fool, he becomes each daughter in turn, showing unexpected glamour and coquettish charm.

The most poignant figure is probably blind Gloucester, who is seen at his lowest ebb, accompanied first by a truly evil Edmund then a nobler Edgar (pronounced with a soft "g" in Mandarin).

The final act is taken up with further musings on Lear and the relationship between the actor and his character.

Thanks to the efforts of the star and great designs from Chang Wang (set) and Tommy Wong and Wong Choo-yean (lighting), the evening looks fantastic throughout the two-hour duration.

This is a most unusual version of King Lear, at least to western eyes, and opens up a whole new way of presenting Shakespeare. Everything is stylised and ritualised so that the look and sound are at least as important as the plot, which one suspects those who are not familiar with the play would find impenetrable.

Ultimately, the experience is far closer to an evening at the ballet or opera than a straight play and what comes over most strongly is the talent of Wu Hsing-kuo as an actor, dancer and singer, whose control of voice and movement is unsurpassable.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher