A Chinese Lear on a quivering rock

What came from the stage to the audience had little to do with Shakespeare, yet it was billed as a performance of King Lear. What came across was art as old as the history of theatre. It was a presentation by the Contemporary Legend Theatre from Taiwan and was part of the Ten Days on the Island festival in Tasmania, a snob festival funded by government to show that it sincerely cares for the arts and would really like Green supporters to vote for it.

A one-man show of King Lear is not something you see advertised every day. A one-man show of King Lear, without Cate Blanchett, was tantalising. A one-man show of King Lear with an orchestra, and in Mandarin, was irresistible.

In the cheap seats of Hobart’s Theatre Royal the surtitles were directly above my head and readable only by putting my head in the lap of the lady sitting two rows behind me. I was lucky. Shakespeare translated into Chinese then back-translated into Taiwanese-ish English has its Ruddish delights but, for an uncontrollable reader, they would have detracted from what happened before me.

Though the bits of the surtitles I did occasionally strain to see were wonderfully surreal, what happened on the stage was far more interesting. In the film Never on a Sunday prostitute Melina Mercouri attends a classic Greek play. She understands none of the old language and creates her own story with a happy ending as before her mothers and sons lustily embrace and limbs are deleted from bodies. Her version is a vast improvement on Sophocles and at the end everyone goes off happily, to live at the seaside. My Mandarin King Lear was just as fantastic and just as great an improvement on Shakespeare.

Wu Hsing-kuo, the director and lone performer, was a former lead dancer with Taiwan’s prestigious Cloud Gate Dance Theatre. Music which mixed classic Chinese, contemporary and electronic was by Lee Yi-chin. The orchestra produced a satisfying and foreign-sounding cacophony. Admittedly, I could have done without the didgeridoo, which was a bit too much like slumming with Sculthorpe.

The stage was framed with black curtains. On one side the orchestra, sitting in a single line, was partly visible. In the acting area were several dark-coloured, free-standing, rough-hewn, slightly larger than human-size sculptures, Henry Moore without the holes.

It was in two parts. In the first Wu Hsing-kuo was costumed as a Chinese opera Lear and acted out the story, I think, from his perspective. In the second, he became a selection of the other characters and retold the story. Whatever that story was about flashed by me uncaught but was no doubt fielded by critics in the expensive seats. What was happening on stage as the dust rose from the boards under Wu’s thudding Chinese-opera-booted feet and bouncing body was enthralling.

For Lear, Wu wore a great streaming artificial beard of fine white threads which blew about with his movements and cries and reduced some of the audience near me to giggles. There were acrobatic movements, dramatic shouts, clanging gongs, with borrowings from the traditions of Chinese opera.

After interval there may have been appearances by Gloucester, Cornwall, Edmund, Edgar, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia and Albany. I know for sure that the three sisters collided on stage and appeared and disappeared with simple costume rearrangements of a scarf and eccentric face movements. A wooden staff starred as Wu showed us the leader and the led at either end of it. The statues from Act I were overturned by black-clothed stagehands and a large papier-mâché rock appeared in the background.

With sound effects of wild seas breaking across the theatre, Wu Hsing-kuo mounted the rocky papier-mâché outcrop growing out of the boards. It trembled beneath his feet. It was a moment which encapsulated a whole history of theatre, for it must be the oldest memory of theatre in the world: bare stage with phony scenery and yet an actor can conjure up a moment of intense audience emotion. Wu Hsing-kuo stood on his quivering pretend rock, acting out a moment of tragedy with sharp and dramatic shrieks, in an incomprehensible language, and I was deeply moved.

Wu’s King Lear gave audiences the pleasure of seeing an actor going over the top at full speed, and keeping on going.

The performance ended and the black-clothed orchestra came on stage and stood respectfully in a diagonal line across the playing area. We clapped hard and Wu Hsing-kuo made a stately entrance downstage. He was utterly serious and utterly royal—it was Anastasia making her entrance into a ballroom of ancien régime remnants who have just recognised her true Romanov identity. His chest was blown out proudly and his features were grave. Raising both arms in front of his body he responded gravely to our applause, for he very obviously considered that we had been privileged—and we had. In return our audience offered him a standing ovation which he accepted generously. It could have been Donald Wolfit before a provincial audience after his King Lear.

Another day, another play: this time the premiere season of Realism by Paul Galloway at the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Sumner Theatre. The play, directed by Peter Evans, showed off the performers, including Miriam Margolyes, and the tricks of the new theatre’s stage mechanics. It was typically “good” MTC theatre which presents well-performed, well-produced banality. Realism dealt with serious matters but lacked toughness and truth.

Players had assembled in a second-rate Moscow theatre in 1939 to rehearse a play celebrating Stalin’s birthday. The Soviet thespians are funny, seemingly good-natured caricatures whose innate garrulity and decency has not been fundamentally destroyed by almost twenty-two years of unbelievable despotism. Margolyes exposed her personality and played an eccentric old woman—another one. At the end of Act I a new actress unexpectedly bursts onto the stage with stunning news of a murder. Blackout. So far, it’s old-fashioned “pass the chocolates, dear” matinee fare.

It was a cold Melbourne day. In the interval a couple were talking of the play:

She: Nice weather for it.
He: Better in than out.

When Act II commences we are returned to the moment of the dramatic revelation and are meant to go further into the nightmare world of Soviet reality but little rings true. Playwright Galloway is unable to convey the reality of daily oppression. The actors speak of stolen relations and colleagues with less emotion than one would speak of a lost dog. Galloway’s text can be funny, but it is drawing-room comedy, not the shit and pus of the genuine Soviet reality: “Gentlemen, please!” says Margolyes. “While I don’t mind one way or the other if you speak ill of the dead, I think it disgracefully poor taste to review them.” While the characters are not, nor meant to be, realistic, the play was unable to rise into the realm of fantastic black comedy which would have suited the themes being explored. Realism stayed stolidly anchored to conventionality.

This is a play in a charnel house. For any drama set in the time fear should be the fourth wall. They talk of it but these are not people who have ever listened sleeplessly for the early morning knock on the door. Australian playwrights don’t do too well with history or politics—though I do have a soft spot for Stephen Sewell’s agitprop Traitors, which is set in Leningrad and Moscow in 1927. When two characters meet they talk about a rented room:

She: Cockroaches?
He: I bombed it.

An aerosol anachronism as splendid as zips in the back of MGM Roman matrons’ togas.

Realism won the 2008 Wal Cherry Award and, also before it had been performed, was published by Currency Press. “Realism is a comedy of nerves, a backstage drama set in a pressure cooker. It’s about the spirit that makes art live and the forces that want to crush it”—back cover prose so familiar and doting that you imagine only the playwright could have written it. If this is life in a pressure cooker it is one in which all the steam has long whistled out the valve.

There is an informer in the actors’ midst. One? Look around you next Writers’ Week. Artists are perhaps the least courageous people in our community. Rigid, sanctimonious and judgmental, they are the allies of totalitarianism, the pack is their natural social milieu. The artist as outlaw and outsider is a marketing legend invented (apologies to Colin Wilson) by gallery owners and publishers for selling their wares to dreaming bourgeois investors. Soviet artists who made it into the Gulag did so because of Stalin’s paranoia, not because they were rebellious. Left literary magazines, theatre groups and Left blog pages are typically the home of squabbling conformists who, even today, would cheerfully send non-conformists into the Gulag.

Into the play comes whispering talk of the banned director Meyerhold. The cast fearfully call him “M”, a tic which seems familiar from the Harry Potter industry and its use of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. From the whispering the play turns into a lecture about Meyerhold. As a climax of sorts the stage dramatically opens out and upends itself as the old set is hauled upwards and new elements of staging fly in or rise out of the floor to take its place for a performance of the Meyerhold technique. The historic reconstruction brought life to old photographs but was a demonstration tacked onto a performing arts lecture. It was also untruthful. The actor playing caricature Stalin is hung from a crane hook hanging from the ceiling. The people onstage would have wept at the news of Stalin’s death, not planned his execution.

At play’s end schoolgirls clapped and screamed and offered the players a standing ovation. It was homage to the performers they recognised from television, not for what they had seen onstage.

Theatre does not have to advance, it’s not going anywhere special, but this does not mean that it only produces banality. But there cannot be a theatre of ideas if dissident ideas are unpresentable on stages where Left fantasies reign. A playwright wishing to dissect fear could do no better than infiltrate a university academic tea room and observe how certain subjects are not broached or see intellectuals seeking safety in puerile discussions of football rather than touching on, for example, the oppressive feminism which weighs upon staff and students. Realism was “nice” and banal and pointless.          

Conversation of two ladies leaving the theatre:

She 1: Fantastic script.
She 2: But a bit long.
She 1: Didn’t really understand it.

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