>LEAR by TheatreWorks

>reviewed by arthur kok

>date: 31 jan 1999
>time: 8pm
>venue: kallang theatre
>rating: ****

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


Freed from its Shakespearean stranglehold, and divested of its royal title, TheatreWorks' LEAR has committed patricide at the onset. It seems as if the production has since been looking for a place to rest - to come to its own.

On Thursday evening, LEAR finally came home. Though it started its run overseas, the play has a Singaporean parent: director Ong Keng Sen was chosen to helm the project precisely because of his nationality. Producer Yuki Hata reasons that since "Singapore is a multiracial society where respective ethnic traditions are all enveloped by the culture of a mega urban society [it would] enhance the meaning of the project".

Thus, the interaction between cultures and the relationship between the traditional and the present inform the production's thematic concerns. Firstly therefore, the production has brought together talent from six different Asian countries. Secondly, formal stylisation native to these cultures is self-consciously adopted. Older techniques from Noh, Beijing Opera, Thai dance and Minangkabau puncak silat negotiate with each other and with contemporary acting styles. The auditory output, likewise, features Javanese gamelan, biwa and synthesiser music. Even the set was suggestive of the old and new: Australian Justin Hill's brilliant stage-design while reminiscent of an Asian fishing hut, was pierced through with space-age florescent fire.

>>'The inability of any one person to comprehend LEAR in its entirety is the production's main point.'

In effect, this conscious presentation sets out to question the discrete categorisation made between the old and new, the traditional and the modern. Ong relates that "Time constantly forces us to recontextualise. Ultimately, we need to recognise that there may be no such dichotomy of tradition and modern".

The premium on technique meant that the actual story plays a secondary role. Little of Shakespeare's original plot survives in this play. Instead, the thematic concerns are buoyed by the stunning execution of theatrical forms. As the Older Daughter, Jiang Qihu's xiaosheng voice pitched tragedy and malevolence with masterful inflection. Likewise, noh actor Naohiko Umewaka's intensely spare gestures lend stage presence a heightened meaning. Occupying the same theatrical space is Hairi Katagiri's in-your-face acting, making the Fool decidedly present day. These among various other performative forms took LEAR into the liminal 'becoming' of Asian theatre.

However, LEAR was not simply a showcase of harmony amidst difference. On the contrary, the play was also as much about the tension between perceived old, new, traditional and modern. TheatreWorks' bringing together of different acting techniques creates a discordant artificiality. Because actors perform in their native tongues and techniques (albeit with absolute comprehension of each other), the audience constantly has to abandon their suspension of disbelief. Indeed, juggling between the electronic translation and the action on-stage, the audience was forced to see the artificiality of the entire enterprise. The question therefore: how feasible is one homogeneous (much less coherent) Asian expression?

The inability of any one person to comprehend LEAR in its entirety is the production's main point. Rather than provide wishful, easy answers, this highly self-reflexive play interrogates the audience. In stunning simplicity, LEAR questions our insistence of difference on one level while subverting the idea of "one Asia" on another.