Director and performer Wu Hsing-kuo finds King Lear has so much personal resonance that he presents the character from three unique and striking angles, in this visually stunning and powerhouse production at the Royal Lyceum Theatre as part of the Edinburgh International Festival.
Having struggled with his own identity and artistic direction, the relevance of the tortured, self-loathing Lear to Wu Hsing-kuo’s own journey is easy to appreciate. Trained in traditional Chinese opera and dance, he first presents the character in the distinctive stylised manner of Peking Opera. Literally shaking with madness, this incarnation of Lear dominates the bleak stage with the exaggerated movements and vocal delivery of the medium. When Wu Hsing-kuo sheds the costume and beard of the King to question his own identity as performer and man, the sense of self-realisation and confession is genuinely moving.
The second act is a spellbinding one-man performance of the dramatic highlights of Shakespeare’s tragedy, with Wu Hsing-kuo flitting from the comic clowning of the fool to the bewitching elegance of Lear’s three daughters, then to the pitiful and blinded Gloucester. Using martial art-inspired movement and several evocative costume changes, he dissects the original text to leave the emotional heart of King Lear beating on stage: raw, bloodied and stark.
The final segment of the piece sees the character of Lear return to literally transcend in a heartfelt and powerful meditation on identity and loss, bringing this operatic tribute to the fatally-flawed character to a dramatic close.
As Wu Hsing-kuo is joined by the performance’s nine offstage musicians in an extended but deserved curtain call, Contemporary Legend Theatre’s King Lear has provided an extraordinary and outstanding interpretation of the original: where the compulsive descent of one man ultimately shows us that, through self-discovery and realisation, hope and redemption are always within our reach.
King Lear runs until 16 Aug at the Royal Lyceum Theatre