By Casidhe Ng
(1,200 words, six-minute read)
“You are a madman, and we are but fools,” the ensemble resounds. So begins Nine Years’ Theatre’s Lear is Dead, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear that borrows from the Chinese opera tradition, and a densely layered performance described as a “play-within-a-play”. True to its word, the show prefaces itself with a “pre-show dialogue” featuring various members of “The Fool’s Society”, a group of “players” who are staging a production about Lear, their former and deceased king. It is “moderated” by one of the Fools (Shu Yi Ching in one of multiple roles), who probes the “creative team” about the nature and choice of the play.
On one level, Lear is Dead tells the story of Lear (Neo Hai Bin), who has chosen to divide and hand over his kingdom to his three daughters – Goneril (Mia Chee), Regan (Jodi Chan) and Cordelia (Shu Yi Ching) — according to the love they profess for him. Goneril and Regan shower empty praises upon him and inherit large amounts of the land, while honest Cordelia is punished and exiled along with the Earl of Kent (Timothy Wan) who tries to defend her. This chain of events results in Lear being disrespected and cast out by his two eldest daughters, who claim that he is “old and almost in [his] final years” and believe he is acting irrationally. In a parallel plot, Edmund (Wan), the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester (Hang Qian Chou), plots to kill his legitimate brother Edgar (Ching) in a bid to usurp his hereditary place of power.
As the play progresses, we are introduced to the device of the “dialogues” that punctuate the core narrative of King Lear. Together, they form a metatheatrical commentary that questions if politics and family can mix, and prods us to consider a wider socio-political context, beyond the theatrical sphere presented to us. It left me questioning not only the nature of our post-Lee Kuan Yew Singapore, but the increasingly salient perspectives about our ageing population, sentiments also expressed in productions such as this year’s A Good Death by Faith Ng. Goneril and Regan’s repeated dismissals of Lear, in his fragile mental state, call to attention prevalent attitudes toward the aged today, who are increasingly taking up occupations of servitude in a society struggling to accommodate them. The power structures that underlie politics mirror the same undercurrents that are present within the family.
Through its faithful rendering of Shakespeare’s original text – and its clever unpicking of how the text is constructed – the references and messages in Lear is Dead can be read as direct allusions to Singapore’s political history. In a moment of palpable sorrow, exceptionally realised by Neo Hai Bin, Lear tells the betrayed and blinded Gloucester, to “get glass eyes”, like “politicians pretending to see things they cannot”. In another mid-show dialogue, two of the Fools talk about Lear (李尔, li er), and how his newfound lack of power overwhelmed him with anxiety. The play not-so-subtly references another famous 李 (also the surname Lee) who wields significant authority over the nation. Still, the Fools conclude that their play is not a “vindication” of Lear, but an illustration of ‘the tragedy of the politician’ who grapples with both the personal and the political. The text and agenda appear incongruent, and such a conclusion absolves and justifies the wielding of power as second nature to Lear, who crumbles without such a position of authority.
In an (actual, unscripted) post-show conversation with the audience, director Nelson Chia iterates that the function of such dialogues was to make the Shakespearean text more accessible to a contemporary audience. In that respect, the dialogues initially serve the function of footnotes to the play, presenting to the audience a reflexive and reflective troupe of Fools who are aware of the thematic implications of their narrative. However, there’s criticism of The Fool’s Society as a pro-Lear “governmental institution” at the beginning of the show – later on, the troupe reiterates that “this performance is organised entirely of our own accord”. Nine Years Theatre is using the structure of the dialogue as a mechanism for political criticism, but it does seem ironic that the very device used to critique the state may be, in some ways, state-driven. The Fool’s King Lear does humanise and vindicate Lear as much as the Fools insist they do not intend to. The result is a Lear we do sympathise with to some degree.
The play may have been “staged” by a Society of Fools, but there’s the character of Lear’s own fool in King Lear as well, here embodied by multiple performers. These fools integrate deftly into the play-within-a-play as fragments of Lear’s psyche. In the climax of the first act, where Lear is pitted against Goneril, Regan and Gloucester, he discovers that his messenger Caius (Kent in disguise) has been taken prisoner by his daughters, and in his passionate sorrow has no one to lean on for support but a fool, a being both present and not present. Later on, as his mental health deteriorates, Lear imagines a court proceeding where he exacts justice upon his daughters: the fools oblige and stand in as an extension of Lear’s imagination, and the two layers of play converge once more. It is in such a way that we, the audience, are continuously made aware that the Lear story in question is constructed.
Special mention must go to Timothy Wan playing the roles of Edmund and Kent/Caius; and Mia Chee’s Goneril, whose stage presence was grandiose and threatening all at once; and Shu Yi Ching doubling up as the tender, loyal, and rightful heirs Cordelia and Edgar. Director Chia has made some deft choices with the division of character parts: Ching embodies the wronged and exiled children, two characters who are stripped of power but end up becoming figures of reparation for their fathers; whereas Wan captures the Jekyll and Hyde parts of traitor (Edmund) and loyal servant (Kent/Caius). The duo (Ching and Wan) thus become not only characters with which we identify with the most, but hammer home the point that power and wisdom cannot fully coexist.
Lear is impressively simple in its production and costume design – the fools are distinguished by bowler hats, the other characters by their intricate headdresses. Chong Li-Chuan’s complex topography of sound and music stands out against this sleek minimalism. It lends the scene transitions a melodramatic gravitas and amplifies moments of intensity: in the beginning of the show’s second half, when Lear goes out in the storm, raving mad, the ensemble almost seems to be channeling a Greek chorus as they sing “狂风，暴雨!” (kuang feng, bao yu; Blow, winds! Come, rain!) over Chong’s melodies.
Every Nine Years’ Theatre production I’ve seen has been packed with allusions and layers of interpretation, veiled and overt messages, technical prowess and careful direction. Lear is Dead is no different. The play ends in the Netherworld, the set awash in red, where Lear is reunited with the rest of the characters. Together, they say: “Those who allow this tragedy are the real fools”, a sobering reminder that those who place individuals in power are as much to blame as those who wield it. With that in mind, the onus and responsibility of good governance falls into the hands of the next generation, a generation with the agency to be “年轻，但是诚实” (nian qing, dan shi cheng shi; young but honest), truthful and upright, and who possess the capability to learn from the mistakes of the past.
Lear is Dead by Nine Years Theatre was staged at the Drama Centre Theatre from 26 October to 28 October 2018. This response is based on the performance on 27 October 2018, 3pm.
Casidhe Ng is currently studying at Yale-NUS College, having graduated from School of the Arts, Singapore in 2015, where he majored in Theatre. In his free time, he enjoys binge-watching TV shows and films, as well as reading. His reviews can be found at centre42.sg and The Flying Inkpot.
This review is part of the Performance Criticism Mentorship Programme with Corrie Tan, which is initiated by National Arts Council and organised by ArtsEquator. It is a six-month programme during which theatre critic and mentor Corrie Tan guides mentees Casidhe Ng and Teo Xiao Ting in reviewing one performance a month from September 2018 to March 2018. The program seeks to push the writers’ and the readers’ expectations of the forms and perspectives of critical writing, as a way to expand beyond the conventional shape and depth of criticism in Singapore.