King Lear – November 2006

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Tse Ka-shing

Company: Yellow Earth Theatre & Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Thursday 23rd November 2006

          Although part of the Complete Works Festival, we opted to see this production in Guildford, on its tour of the UK. I found it interesting, though not as emotionally engaging as I’m used to with Lear. The mixture of actors – half from the UK, speaking mainly English, and half from China, speaking mainly Mandarin – worked pretty well, although it can’t have been easy rehearsing this work. Checking out the surtitles, I realised that sometimes a short English line would translate to about two minutes of Chinese, while long English lines would occasionally produce a few terse Chinese syllables. I did feel this affected the rhythm of the piece, with some bits of dialogue trundling on long past the delivery of the emotional content (or the time it took to read the surtitles, depending).

The core idea was of a slightly futuristic world, with China now the major superpower, and Lear handing over the reins of his global business empire to his three daughters. Some of this worked quite well, and some just jarred. The final battle between Cordelia’s forces and the sisters’ troops was shown as a trading war on the exchange floor, with figures flying up and down so fast it was impossible to see what was going on. Hardly life and death. And what was the purpose? To break the Lear business empire? A bit difficult to do in one trading session, I would have thought. This version weakened the end scenes, when lives have supposedly been, and are being, staked on who ends up in charge. But in other ways this setting worked quite well. The use of mobile phones and text messaging to replace most of the usual letters was very well done. The initial scene with the daughters being asked to vie for their father’s love used video conferencing to good effect. Cordelia has obviously been sent to run the business interests overseas, and so has lost touch with her roots; she finds it difficult to speak what she feels, as Chinese is no longer her first language, and her cultural understanding has changed too. We can readily accept in our society the idea of older, Asian cultures having a strong paternalism that’s no longer so prevalent here. And family business empires are often run by Alpha+ males, who expect everyone else to obey without question, while perhaps having a few quirks of personality that can seem out of place in an otherwise rational person. So all that fitted, and Cordelia’s obvious separation from her family comes across loud and clear. The marriage proposals had to be ditched, but that’s a minor price to pay.

With so few actors there was a lot of doubling as well, even with the cuts. Only Zhou Yemang stuck to the one role, Lear. I found it confusing at first, especially when David Yip came on in one scene, having previously been Gloucester, now playing Albany. I realised eventually that there were subtle changes of costume, but it took me a while to adjust. Overall, it worked reasonably well.

One excellent idea was to have the fool expressed as Lear’s inner thoughts, adding to the sense that he’s cracking up. The rest of the cast, wearing uniform robes, stood round him speaking some of the fool’s lines, while Lear reacted much more emotionally to what he was hearing. I liked this interpretation a lot. In fact, I found Zhou Yemang’s portrayal both restrained and moving – he conveyed a sense of the barriers this man has erected around himself, and the tremendous upheaval he’s going through very well, especially considering the language difference.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at