Reviews Edinburgh Published 19 August 2011

King Lear

Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh ⋄ 13th - 16th August 2011

A one-man mix of traditions.

Christine Twite

An act of renewal and revival.

Wu Hsing-kuo’s adaptation of King Lear, produced by his Taiwanese company Contemporary Legend Theatre, is one of several contemporary Asian adaptations of Shakespeare at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.

Of all the work under the banner of the EIF, this production is perhaps the most consciously avant-garde. Performed in Mandarin with English surtitles, Wu Hsing-kuo fuses jingju (Beijing Opera) with Shakespeare’s play. But rather than just offering  a reinterpretation of Lear within a different performance tradition, Hsing-kuo also simultaneously refashions the conventions of jingju, performing it as a one man show.

The production is dazzling. An orchestra consisting of traditional instruments accompanies his performance, at times crashing with anger, but also using the bamboo flute to lull both Lear and the audience into calm. The set design, by Chang Wang, is simple but effective. It consists of four seemingly ancient statues standing at the corners of the stage, which are smashed to the floor later on. In the first act, Hsing-kuo plays Lear as a jingju character, but he also muses on identity, performing as ‘an actor’ and, at times, as himself. Later he takes this idea one step further and plays each of the key characters in Lear in turn, until finally he performs as a ghost of Lear’s past. The athletic artistry in these key operatic tropes was particularly striking and resulted in a few audience members shrieking as he fell backwards to the floor.

Hsing-kuo slips between the identities of self, actor and character; the result an often beautiful exploration of questions about legacy, respect for age and maturity and the loss of identity. These echo the themes in Shakespeare’s  play. But most importantly they run through Hsing-kuo’s dialogue with the jingju tradition itself, as he openly deconstructs it. Jingju is a tradition which is threatened by contemporary society’s different needs and values: it is performed less and less and is struggling to sustain itself as an art form.

The only thing holding this production back was the fact that without a sound knowledge of King Lear, I suspect that the audience might struggle to follow some of what was occurring on stage. In a similar way, my own lack of experience of this particular performance tradition meant that perhaps other subtleties were lost on me: the subversion of the tradition of Jingju can be best understood by an audience who is knowledgeable about it in the first place. But despite these reservations the piece still engages.

Hsing-kuo’s way of performing in the Jingju tradition is self-referential and conscious of modernity, playfully charting its own demise. But it is through work like this that new life is being given to the form and new audiences are being found. Lear may end with a sense of desolation, loss and death in a godless universe, but Hsing-kuo is engaged in an act of renewal and revival.


Christine Twite

Christine is a theatre academic, producer and project manager. She is currently researching a PhD in Contemporary Theatre Audiences with Queen Mary, University of London.

King Lear Show Info

Directed by Wu Hsing-kuo

Cast includes Wu Hsing-kuo


Running Time 2 hrs (with one interval)



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