Where fools speak the truth

Lear Is Dead is Nine Years Theatre's first stab at a Shakespearean play.
Lear Is Dead is Nine Years Theatre's first stab at a Shakespearean play.PHOTO: THE POND PHOTOGRAPHY

Nine Years Theatre's take on Shakespeare's King Lear is thought-provoking, metatheatrical and somewhat absurdist

REVIEW / THEATRE

LEAR IS DEAD

Nine Years Theatre

Drama Centre Theatre, National Library

Last Friday

Nine Years Theatre's Mandarin adaptation of King Lear has a sparse neon-frame set, music like something out of a 1990s video game and Chinese imperial-style costumes whose headpieces hover like antennas over the wearers' heads.

The local theatre group's first stab at a Shakespearean play is a thought-provoking, metatheatrical and somewhat absurdist take on the story of the proud king who descends into madness after he is betrayed by two of his three daughters.

In Lear Is Dead, a troupe called the Fools Society stages a play about Lear after his death. Having each character double as a fool - Shakespeare's fools are often the ones who speak the truth - is an intriguing approach and apt in a play whose main character is deceived by flattery and spurns those who speak their minds.

Reimagining the story of Lear as a play within a play does several things: It suggests that histories are constructs and makes us more conscious of the way Lear's world mirrors our own.

At first glance, Lear Is Dead (Li Er Wang in Mandarin) might seem a lot more subversive than it actually is. Its Mandarin title yokes kingship to mortality, a clever play on the homophonic relationship between the words for "die" and "king" ("wang"). Director Nelson Chia has also suggested that the play was inspired by the "post great man anxiety" in Singapore after the passing of the old guard headed by founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Yet the social criticism often feels tacked on, appearing mainly in the breaks between scenes where the director and actors of the play within the play talk about their show like they would in a post-show discussion.

There are glancing allusions to the Lear dynasty and topics such as hero-worship, self-censorship, freedom of speech and political succession, but like the posthumous anxiety Chia talks about, these are not explored in much depth. The actors also have the sententious habit of hammering home the relationship between power and wisdom.

One of the distinctive things about Chia's production, however, is the way it sidesteps heavy emotion in favour of a kind of absurd levity, even though this is a story whose titular character goes mad and another has his eyes gouged out.

Lear, played by Neo Hai Bin, is too much of a capering fool for us to feel anything for him beyond twinges of pity. And when the characters take turns to die in the final act, they sink, one by one, into a kind of slumber before they awaken in the netherworld. (Including Lear's loyal daughter Cordelia, who, unlike previous productions, is not carried onto the stage by her grieving father.)

Lear Is Dead is a clever piece of work, but seems to exemplify George Orwell's observation that Shakespeare was not a systematic thinker and his "most serious thoughts are uttered irrelevantly or indirectly".

As with the famous optical grid illusion whose grey blobs disappear when you try to look at them directly, critics trying to spot a coherent pattern of social criticism here may find the experience very frustrating indeed. Just as well that the play should make fools of us all.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2018, with the headline 'Where fools speak the truth'. Print Edition | Subscribe