The idea of a one-man adaptation of King Lear possibly struck lots of potential audience members as ridiculous. That at least is one likely explanation for the sparsely populated Lyceum, and a kinder one than blaming the innate conservatism of the International Festival audience. I must confess that before I went along this evening I had my doubts. No longer. This is a very powerful theatrical experience and I urge you to challenge your preconceptions and pick up a ticket.
Before going you should discard any idea that this is going to be in any way a traditional performance of Shakespeare's play. It is useful to refresh your memory of the plot if it is hazy, but you can do this very straightforwardly by purchase of a program. Instead what Wu Hsing-kuo delivers is an exploration, based on the techniques of Chinese opera, of themes and characters from Shakespeare's play. Again, at this point, I can hear seasoned International Festival Drama goers groan, oh not another deconstuction of a classic text. But this one works.
Hsing-kuo's Lear is divided into three sections. First we see King Lear running mad on the heath. Second, we have an episodic selection of scenes from the rest of the play (a brief feature of the Fool, the division of the kingdom, and Gloucester's attempted suicide from Dover cliff being the main ones). Thirdly, and most briefly, a kind of ritual summation of the character of Lear as Hsing-kuo interprets him.
This is very definitely not western theatre as one is generally familiar with it. If you've seen a film like Farewell my Concubine you will have some sense of the style and rituals of Peking Opera. Also an influence, I felt, were more recent martial arts movies. The pace is slowed, you have to give yourself to the ritual, the use of the voice, the almost continuous musical accompaniment. Yes, there were moments when I wasn't completely convinced by a particular scene, or when I felt I was ready to move onto the next thing, but the total experience casts a remarkable, actually quite shattering spell.
There's also a visual beauty to this performance which feels refreshing in contrast to standard theatre here. The set is simple, but where colour is used, in costume, in lighting – it somehow packs real punch. The falling snow on the heath in the middle of the second part was really magical.
And through all of this moves the remarkably versatile Wu Hsing-kuo. I don't think I can really do justice to the range of skills a performer in this tradition needs – but it's a kind of combination of multiple voices, balletic grace, martial arts precision, the odd bit of gymnastics and the strange songs of Peking Opera. Two moments stood out. During the representation of Gloucester preparing to leap from Dover cliff, Hsing-kuo alternates between representing Gloucester and Poor Tom. His only prop is a wooden staff, and with this remarkable grace he would almost leap from one end to the other, changing his height, his voice, his whole manner between speeches. Again this probably sounds unworkable, but it was totally convincing. The other, most powerful moment for me came when he divested himself of the garments signifying Lear at the close of the first half and began to cast desperate glances into the wings - “The play can begin now! Where is Goneril? Where is Regan? Where are my hundred knights? The play can begin!” - Again you could say this was a mere mockery of the idea of one man doing the whole of King Lear but on some level it seemed to say something very central about Lear's madness.
As I said at the beginning, throw out your preconceptions and pick up a ticket.
The experience of seeing this the night after the Jonathan Harvey triptych performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra yesterday was extremely instructive. Tonight's score showed just how much Harvey's music was influenced by that sound world. When Mills first released the Festival 2011 programme in April it was the first time that, on paper, it seemed to me the theme actually was being carried in a meaningful away across the various genres the festival encompasses. Now I don't think (as evidenced by either the marketing or Mills's speech attempting to introduce the programme at the Opening Concert) that the Festival team are doing the best job of drawing out these parallels. Yet, the early evidence of these two performances shows that they are clearly there. So be adventurous this Festival, see something in a genre you wouldn't normally bother with. My brother tells me that the same could be said for last year's Festival - only attending for a week it was difficult to tell. All I can say is that so far this year is the first of Mills's festivals for me where the theme has really seemed to make sense.