November 17, 2006, by Peter Kirwan
King Lear (Yellow Earth) @ The Cube
The final production of the month-long Cube season was the first of this year’s two ‘King Lear’s. Hi-tec and set in the near future (2020), this production translated Lear’s kingdom to the global business world, with Lear as a Shanghai CEO passing on the reins of the company to his three daughters.
A collaboration between Yellow Earth, a UK based Chinese company, and the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center, the most striking thing about this production was the language. Actors moved freely between Mandarin and English, sometimes mid-sentence, while a set of bilingual surtitles helped the audience keep track. The post-show talk informed us that half of the actors (those playing Gloucester, Edmund, Edgar and the English-educated Cordelia) were English natives, many with barely a word of Chinese, while Lear, Kent and the two elder daughters were Chinese with rough English. In this sense it was a truly cross-cultural clash, bringing together generations of Chinese brought up on different sides of the East-West divide, and throwing into relief the initial tension between Lear and Cordelia, who he contacted in the first scene via videoconferencing.
The mixed language allowed more focus on the acting, which was more than adequate. The age gap between Zhou Ye Mang’s Lear and his three student-age daughters was pronounced, and his infirmity when Goneril and Regan colluded against him was particularly moving. His act of madness was also well done, simultaneously funny and sad.
The Fool was cut from the play, two key moments instead being done by use of a Chinese style ensemble chorus, delivering lines in a sing-song way as if part of a conversation going on inside Lear’s head. The production effectively juggled old and new, with Edgar and Edmund putting aside their flick-knives to have a sword duel, preceded by a display of swordsmanship, the battle scene was changed to a war of shares at the stock exchange (though admittedly this decision felt a little bit twee, and personally I think the battle could have been sidestepped for something more intimate) and Dover became the Dover Hotel, a labyrinth of penthouses, roof gardens and luxury suites. Mobile phones played a big part in giving the suggestion of a global conglomerate, tied together loosely and electronically and thus susceptible to the kind of hostile takeover Goneril and Regan had planned.
It was a very solid production, and one that the director had found a lot of relevance in- he related the ideas of miscommunication and estranged families in the play to the difficulties faced by second- and third-generation Chinese families living in England in communicating with their parents and grandparents- they simply don’t have the vocabulary to talk about things beyond the mundane. The updated setting worked well, and the performances were all very good. A fantastic way to close this year’s studio season.
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