Kings of the Asylum
With The King Lear Project, Ho Tzu Nyen and Fran Borgia have created the grandest and most insanely ambitious theatre work staged thus far by an artist of my generation in Singapore. Their opus is staggering in its scope, straddling three nights in its project to deconstruct Shakespeare's King Lear, each evening interpreting a different critical essay on the play, calling into the question the very notion of the stageability of the work.
There's one small problem, though. The production wasn't a popular success.
The Straits Times may be too polite to say it, but I will. A majority of the audience (including both respected intellectuals and ingenue schoolkids) hated the whole hyper-conceptual pomo thingumajig to bits. They found it tedious, cumbersome, manipulative, alienating, artificial. I can't help but agree.
Yet the truth is, I myself really enjoyed this show. How can I explain - not defend, but merely explain - my perverse opinion?
I'll proceed night by night.
* * *
First up was Part 1: Lear Enters (***1/2), performed as a series of auditions for the title role of an upcoming King Lear production. Director Kaylene Tan (played by Kaylene Tan) screened three potential actors, Remesh Panicker, K. Rajagopal and Gerald Chew (again played by the very same), each trying out the first scene of the play along the lines of Lear as god, madman and everyman.
The premise actually went down pretty well with a fair number of viewers, who oohed and aahed at the novelty of the work. Personally, I felt cheated - as the most studious theatre critic in the audience, I kept recognising Ho's tricks as repetitions from his previous body of work: the framework of the audition lifted from King Lear: The Avoidance of Love, staged at SPARKS last year, while the cyclical presentation of the show (the ending as a repetition of the beginning) was borrowed from his TV documentary 4 X 4 - Episodes in Singapore Art No. 3: Tang Dawu.
Pshaw, I hear you say. Give the man a break - an artist is allowed to recycle his own work. Fair enough: in that case I demand that the work be equal to or at least as good as its predecessors. And in this, Lear Enters fell resoundingly short.
You see, The Avoidance of Love actually managed to resemble an audition when it was staged - its actresses, performing the speeches of Lear's daughters, had no prior knowledge of the greater structure of the performance. This brought a shot of real spontaneity into a performance otherwise weighted down by highfalutin theory - unexpected laughs and off-the-cuff insights that made me rank the show as my favourite production of 2007.
Lear Enters, on the other hand, just wasn't believable. Auditions had clearly been pre-rehearsed on a grand scale: each actor reading for Lear was granted a gargantuan complex of set, lighting design and fellow cast members for his scene. Kaylene's act of being some cold-bitch-dominatrix-director just wasn't credible either - and why on earth was she going through the motions of being a faux film director, yelling out "Cut!" to the colossal cameras?
Sure, there were a few cool moments when real life intruded on drama: as Kaylene quizzed the actors on why they wanted to play Lear, their true, unmemorised personalities emerged: Panicker's regal force as the player king contrasting with his natural comic nervousness; the scars of Rajagopal's skin disease visible in his guise as the mad and naked king.
But overall, the show was heavy, dead heavy. Consider the role of Paul Rae, the producer, spouting academese at the audience. In Avoidance, he'd wandered around on stage, an intriguing Puck-like character speaking in riddles. But in Lear Enters, he's seated in the audience, but when the camera and sound system zoom in on his face, he becomes a godlike authority - the bigwig literature prof that a student loves to hate.
I regarded Lear Enters as a pale imitation of Avoidance - unavoidably altered, due to the greater scale of the project and the less intimate space of the Drama Centre, yet still able to communicate something of the hip conceptualism of the original. It deserved some credit, but I wasn't optimistic about the forthcoming nights.
* * *
Sure enough, Part 2: Dover Cliff - The Conditions of Representation (***1/2) was panned by fellow critics as the worst item in the trilogy. The show took the form of rehearsals, as the cast and crew experimented with different interpretations of King Lear's "problem scenes". First, light, sound and set designers battled over how to stage the scene in which Lear rails at the storm above him; then the cast plays with tongs and fingers and spurs, trying to recreate the scene of Gloucester's blinding. Finally there's the title scene, where Edgar leads Gloucester to Dover, leading him to attempt suicide by jumping off a non-existent cliff.
My companions grumbled at this piece - for them, it was boring, with too many formulaic textual repetitions, completely lacking in that semi-impromptu instability that'd made Lear Enters special for them. The lack of realism now riled them - the cameras continued recording even during rehearsals, while actors and tech crew recited their stock paragraphs of criticism with little ability to make Ho's words sound natural in their throats.
But somehow, I didn't care. Having watched Lear Enters, I'd accepted everything I didn't like about that piece as a set dramatic convention. And while my friends hadn't liked the way Ho and Borgia practically dictated their perspectives on the play rather than allowing them to subtly emerge, I was transfixed: I liked being led along by the nose, I liked experiencing lecture as live performance.
What I relished here was that I was getting a glimpse of the Ho Tzu Nyen I'd always admired before: a wayward thinker with the ability to surprise us, to make insane choices, to make us go, "what the hell was that?" Case in point: the giant black penis that descended from the flybar during the storm scene, spurting rainwater all over the actors, allowing the set designer to illustrate the sexual innuendo of Lear's monologue. Crude? Excessive? Unnecessary? Yes, yes and yes. But as a man half-jaded from the first night's unadventurousness, it made me clap my hands in joy.
Or consider the closing scene: Kaylene relinquishes power to the actors to direct the Dover Cliff scene, witnessing them remove multimedia, props and herself as director from the equation. She then proposes that the troupe go all the way - remove even the actors, so that all the audience attends to is the text. The stage goes pitch-dark, mimicking Gloucester's blindness: we hear a pre-recorded dialogue of Edgar and Gloucester, spoken by the actors with minimum expression.
The voiceover ends abruptly, not with Gloucester's redemption, but with his suicide: the doors of the theatre fling open and we enter the bright foyer, where the actors stand in tableaux vivant, not the moving shadows of the theatre but the ideal Platonic forms of Shakespeare alive in our minds.
* * *
In Part 3: The Lear Universe (***1/2), Ho and Borgia went full swing into contemporary artist mode. Note to the uninitiated: in the art world (unlike the theatre world), the most important thing is now to please yourself and maybe the critics, not your audience.
The show began with the final, devastating scene of King Lear, followed by a curtain call and the appearance of Ben Slater as the moderator for a post-show dialogue with the director and the full, expanded cast of the Shakespeare play. Yet the dialogue turned into a recurring nightmare: first, the audience and cast sat in uncomfortable silence, with the moderator refusing to address questions from ordinary audience members. When planted questions arrived, they set off a series of meticulous answers from the director and actors, which inevitably yielded a re-enactment of key scenes in the play - ending in the closing scene once again, followed by a curtain call and the appearance of Ben Slater as the moderator for a post-show dialogue ...
Cute trick, you might think. But this happened five fucking times. It was torture. And yes, I managed to love the torture.
You see, the structure's inspired by a quote from Wilson Knight's essay The Lear Universe, in which he compares the play to an experience of Purgatory. It was thus completely appropriate to inflict suffering on the audience - and, fortunately for us, the specific content of our trials frequently varied.
Through various incarnations of the discussion, the talk-back topics shifted from the relationships between the characters to the play as an allegory for human history, even exploring different versions of the King Lear text - one cycle ended not with the traditional closing scene but with the happy ending written in 1687 by Nahum Tate. (Personally, I think the show would've been stronger if Ho and Borgia had ended here: the ultimate irony.)
Of course, my friends recognised the conceptual value of the cycle, but were frustrated by the slow pace, engendering a moment of grandiose dread as the curtain was lowered. They were particularly angered by the refusal to accommodate real questions from the floor - an interesting story could've emerged out of improv and forum theatre, rather than everything being scripted by Ho himself. After all, at one point characters had discussed how King Lear had been revised to accommodate audience feedback, thus proving that Shakespeare wasn't the monolithic genius of our imaginations. To forsake audience interaction was thus to reject the very theoretical principles brought up in the work.
Yes indeed. But to cave in to the audience would've sacrificed the very grandeur of the work: Ho and Borgia were being deliberately sadistic, enclosing the audience in a byzantine cage of their own device. The artists were putting forth a new vision of theatre: not as a genre of entertainment, but as a punishing form of collective therapy, a shared experience of enlightening trauma.
* * *
Two hours after its first false ending, The Lear Universe finally came to a close. One of the first things I did then was to tell the directors they were dickheads.
Of course, I meant this in the best way possible: only an artist with a certain brand of arrogance and daring, a sociopathic chutzpah, could've created such a remarkable show. No matter whether we liked, disliked or vehemently hated The King Lear Project, it'll remain branded into our minds as a significant artistic experience. There is no way to feel dispassionate about this play.
Ho and Borgia didn't accomplish the project as well as they could have - they desperately need a better writer for dialogue, or else to relax a little and allow for the polyphony of voices and opinions that so animated The Avoidance of Love. Yet it's unique as a major work of national anti-theatre, officially commissioned by the Singapore Arts Festival and even exported to Brussels - who else in our midst can claim to have pushed an anti-aesthetic idea so far? The artist Lim Tzay Chuen, perhaps, with his proposal to bring the Merlion to the Venice Biennale. But no-one in the theatre world, as far as I can recall, has managed to pull off anything quite so crazy.
Whether you like it or not, Ho Tzu Nyen and Fran Borgia are visionaries. They may never pull off a theatre-based project of this magnitude again (and indeed, I'd be a little scared to watch it if they did). But if nothing else, it's a testament to the long way we've come in our theatre history that their glorious lunacy can be programmed as part of a festival's mainstream.
What the two have done is equal in pride, if not in quality, to the greatness of the Lear mythos itself. Their failures were human, their successes heroic, and their courage to even attempt this divinely mad.
Disclaimer: Ng Yi-Sheng collaborated with Ho Tzu Nyen and Fran Borgia in his 2007 play 251. However, due to technical difficulties, most of the multimedia they designed was never used.
The King Lear Project Part 1: Lear Enters
Deeply structured, yet tantalisingly eccentric, Lear Enters wriggles a deconstructive finger into the workings of theatre as we know it. The show takes the form of an audition, treating us to three wildly different renditions of King Lear, Act One, Scene One, making for great entertainment: Remesh Panicker astounds us as the godlike Lear, K. Rajagopal wreaks merry havoc as the mad Lear, and Gerald Chew provides a quiet, yet humanly provoking rendition of Lear as everyman. All this spectacle is balanced by a highly conceptual setup: the strange tension as the stagehands set the stage, the cold authority of the director as she interviews the actors, stripping them down to their non-performative selves. Sadly, though, the success of the work doesn't quite match that of Ho and Borgia's earlier, more low-key collaboration, King Lear: The Avoidance of Love. Though both shows are based on similar premises, Lear Enters is less spontaneous, less believable, less funny, less subtle, less intimate.
The King Lear Project Part 2: Dover Cliff - The Conditions of Representation
I seem to be in the minority here, but I actually enjoyed The King Lear Project's second night more than the first. In Dover Cliff, we witness rehearsals of three different scenes from King Lear: the storm, the gouging of Gloucester's eyes, and the fall at Dover Cliff. Each scene mutates as the team experiments with different tactics of blocking and design, illustrating at the battle between stageability and the poetry/philosophy of the text. And though there's much less of a sense of the impromptu, and the casual dialogues are too frequently written in ostentious academese, there's a rhythm to the pacing that works for me, a sequence of ideation that's equivalent to the process of thinking aloud. And although it's a piece is based on repetition, I still find that Ho Tzu Nyen still has the ability to surprise us, to make insane choices, to make us go, "what the hell was that?"
The King Lear Project Part 3: The Lear Universe
Once more, I find my opinion's completely different from most of the audience's. I really relished The Lear Universe, partly because it dared to torture us - and when I say torture, I mean that the performance consisted of a post-show dialogue caught in an unending loop, deliberately recreating a state of purgatory for us as viewers. I found those long, awkward silences of the fake Q&A sessions hellishly farcical (no other word to describe my helpless laughter and moaning on the fifth cycle), and I truly enjoyed the way the questions kept moving us to consider divergent scholarly perspectives of the play: the dissonance between the endings of the quarto and folio versions, the popularity of Nahum Tate's bowdlerized ending, and the show as an allegory for all of human history. My friends, however, complained of the cumbersomeness of the long dialogues and transitions, as well as the frustrating didacticism of it all. And we're pretty much agreed that the show doesn't so much open up the text for discussion, as it closes down independent interpretation; so fixated is it on its mad philosophical trajectory. No matter: even if the show's dismissed as a failure, I can safely state it's one of the most ambitious and spectacular failures I've had the privilege to see.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /