By Teo Xiao Ting
(1,069 words, six-minute read)
After a gleaming heap of corpses dissipates into the afterlife and comes back for a closing bow, Lear is Dead ends with the quiver of revelation. But wait, what was it exactly that we gleaned? A sideways glance at the audience around me, and everyone is already starting to leave after offering up their resounding applause. It took me several days to parse out how the show resonated with me. Lear is Dead jests and prances between farce and truth. Don’t take them seriously; take them very seriously. Both commands demand to be heeded, but maybe there’s no real distinction between the two.
Lear is Dead is Nine Years Theatre’s first attempt at adapting a Shakespearean play. Interspersed with “pre (and mid)-show dialogues” — as opposed to post-show ones — as tongue-in-cheek commentary on the production’s premise, Lear is held together by a sparse neon frame and not-so-subtle references to the current global political climate. The central conceit of a play-within-a-play lends the production a critical frame, demanding reflexivity from the audience by revealing the bare bones of a theatre production from the get-go.
Under the cascading sleeves of costumes reminiscent of Chinese opera, characters float in and out of being fools, their colourful headgear bobbing above their heads. The story follows King Lear’s (Neo Hai Bin) descent into madness after he splits his empire into two, gifting it to his daughters Regan (Jodi Chan) and Goneril (Mia Chee). His third and arguably most beloved daughter Cordelia (Shu Yi Ching) receives nothing after being unable to utter false flattery, and is exiled. Everyone is a 愚/余人 (yu ren), the Mandarin term and homonym for “fool” or “remnant”, for different reasons: from King Lear to Cordelia, the “production team” who appears during the “dialogue” sessions to the actual production team, and — dare I include — the audience.
Lear asserts that it is impossible for power and wisdom (the latter defined by director Nelson Chia as the “light of humanity”) to co-exist. Whether the two are really mutually exclusive isn’t really the crux here. Lear’s focus on the tension between the two reflects the demagoguery present in a global political climate that is anything but stable. Brazil’s new president is looking to be — dare I say — a hard-handed extremist. The imminent US mid-term elections brings with it anxiety and hope, with America having endured almost two years of the Trump presidency. Closer to home, truths and mistruths muddle together in several attempts to delineate the two. A 6-hour interrogation over the interpretation of historical events? Check. A lawsuit that threatens to bankrupt the leaders of an opposition party? Check. A senator detained after being openly critical of the president? Check. The relevance of Lear is undeniable, but what can we do about its resonance with real life?
By the second “mid-show dialogue”, we learn why the “production team” wanted to stage their show in light of “King Lear’s” death. Because it is important for people to be reflexive and respond, for artworks to not be a blind tribute for a person, no matter how great. Because to deify a human is also to calcify their humanity. In the wake of Lee Kuan Yew’s death, a bunch of reverent artworks were created. A musical was even written in memory of the man, at which Lear makes a wry dig. It has been three years, but perhaps it is long enough to warrant a reminder: criticism was not welcome in the waves upon waves of praises and condolences, even derided by the public as being disrespectful. But was it—is it really? Respect and love does not always need to be presented as praise and flattery, as Cordelia tried to exemplify when asked by King Lear how much she loves him. Speaking the unpalatable truth is love, too. Lear then functions as a call for action, for more truths to be spoken in its many forms, be it art or dialogue, arising from an act of love.
Be too earnest and insist too much on speaking against the grain, and you will be exiled, just as Cordelia and Edgar (the Earl of Gloucester’s upright son) were. But, according to the Tarot deck, the Fool not only refers to a young person standing on the edge of a cliff without care for danger. It also signifies faith in the future and new beginnings, evident in these two characters as they remain tender and loving towards the very person who drove them out. Cordelia saves her father’s life, and Edgar prevents his father from committing suicide, both bearing little to no resentment despite being driven out of their homes. In the haze of blindness after having his eyes gouged out by Goneril, the Earl of Gloucester (Hang Qian Chou) is told by King Lear that he “[doesn’t] need eyes to see the world,” and eventually recognises Edgar (also played by Shu Yi Ching), his beloved son, by touch. The two fathers eventually see who truly cares for them. What is essential isn’t always visible; one also needs to see with the heart.
Lear begs the question: is it really a foolish act to imagine a reality where truths can be uttered without persecution, where differing views can be worked through rather than weeded out? Does it always have to end in some kind of tragedy? It doesn’t necessarily have to be so. We are all fools for something, which is why people are still vocal about the issues that they are passionate about, despite the possibility of being put on a grey list.
While discussing pertinent realities such as racial discrimination, inequality, and the need for activism, it is not uncommon to be told to be “careful”, to “not be so obvious” about questioning authority and the status quo. But why? While tact is important, do we not have the maturity to listen and weigh for ourselves the validity of what’s said? King Lear was unable to stomach the truth that Cordelia was not blindly devoted to him, but what he named as rebellion was, in fact, love. He came around to the truth later, albeit too late. Are leaders around the world doomed to be fools the way King Lear was? Am I a fool for hoping otherwise? Call it idealism, but I think not. There are more truths, more ways of loving. There is another world to be materialised, both truthful and daring.
I dare imagine.
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.
Teo Xiao Ting recently graduated from Yale-NUS College with a BA (Hons.) in Arts & Humanities, minoring in Psychology. She is currently a freelance writer, subeditor, and fact-checker. For more information about this human, visit her website.
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.