Shakespeare’s King Lear, “a very foolish fond old man, four score and upwards” who learns, too late, about deception and betrayal, enthrals fans with the tumult of his emotions. “Nothing will come of nothing,” he warns daughter Cordelia, who deigns to flatter him because her love is more ponderous than her tongue. As Lear loses his mind, he becomes clear about his arrogant folly, and we feel sorry for this man “more sinned against than sinning”.
KL Shakespeare Players’ (KLSP) Old Lear, which opens in Selangor in June before heading for a competition in Milan, Italy, will not attempt to retell this familiar story. Instead, co-directors Lee Swee Keong and Lim Kien Lee, also the choreographer and dramaturge respectively, are focused more on creating a visual performance in their reimagined production of this tragedy.
“My intention is not to tell the story. I play with space; I want to see how the actors use an imaginary space to create visuals that play with the imagery in Shakespeare’s writing,” says Swee Keong, the artistic director of Nyoba Kan. The butoh dance theatre company he founded in 1995 is collaborating with KLSP in Old Lear.
“I don’t design anything or tell the actors what to do. I work with them physically and let them respond to the text. Many times during rehearsals, I am very touched when I see a truthful quality from them. Somehow they also go through the process of being healed, like discovering their own self through acting and playing different roles. Each of us has many different dimensions and attitudes.”
Kien Lee expands on how the team works together. “Swee Keong doesn’t come in with a preconceived idea. He will go, ‘Okay, what’s this play about?’ Sometimes I feed him the lines and he creates his visual ideas from there.
“We are doing a reimagination of one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies but still want a connection with the original. Lots of people die at the end of the show and people often go, ‘Oh dear’. That was how we decided on the title of our production.”
Old Lear is KLSP’s entry at the International Prize ‘Il Teatro Nudo’ di Teresa Pomodoro organised by Spazio Teatro No’hma Teresa Pomodoro and the township of Milan. It will be staged in the Italian city on June 22 and 23, after playing at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre in Petaling Jaya on June 11 and 12.
The Naked Theatre’s invitation-only competition, now in its 13th year, promotes stripped-down performances that do not stifle thought and emotion with frills and ostentation. It explores the meaning of dignity, humanity and values common to all through theatre.
The prize is dedicated to the memory of Italian artist Teresa Pomodoro (1940-2008), who conceived the idea of theatre open to all artistic crossovers and gives voice to exclusion, social degradation and the lack of communication between individuals. It aims to overcome prejudice and cultural barriers, and is welcoming of others.
Old Lear is a revised and reworked production of a similarly titled show first developed for and presented at the 2019 KL Butoh Festival through a collaboration between KLSP, Nyoba Kan and Japanese butoh practitioner Dai Matsuoka, brought in by Japan Foundation Malaysia.
Responding to changes in the cast, the current edition explores new visuals, dynamics and other theatrical possibilities and will be presented in Malay, Mandarin and Cantonese. It will incorporate some physical vocabularies of Chinese theatre and Malay traditional dance, areas Anthony Lee and Adlan Sairin work in respectively. They join original cast members Sandee Chew, Zulhusni Zamir and Lim Soon Heng, who takes the titular role as well as that of Gloucester, the loyal Earl.
Anthony had a role in Richard III, a Nyoba Kan Shakespeare performance staged here in 2016. Aswara (National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage) graduate Adlan now takes the role performed by Matsuoka.“We’ve been looking for a dancer for months,” Swe Keong says. “The actors see something they are not familiar with because Adlan is a dancer — he brings good energy to the group. When actors from different genres work together, they inspire each other.
“In our previous production, the actors all spoke English. This time round, as Anthony is more comfortable speaking Mandarin, we thought, okay. Then we have Zul, who has been working with KLSP for a number of years. When he speaks Malay, you can hear its musicality. So we decided he would play some of his parts — that of Cordelia’s sisters — in Malay. Language is an expression of feeling and it is very beautiful to watch the actors speaking in their mother tongue. Their charisma shines.”
Kien Lee says audiences familiar with King Lear will be able to see how the chronology, plots, scenes, relationships and words are reimagined, reinterpreted, deconstructed, reconstructed and, at times, even subverted in Old Lear. “Those without a working knowledge of the play will experience, nonetheless, the pull and push of characters negotiating power and control, as they are presented through a dance of words, movement, mise-en-scene and music.
“If I tell Swee Keong, ‘This scene is famous and it’s done [a certain] way’, he will try to subvert it and do things differently. That’s where I sense the spirit of butoh most. If I say a scene is supposed to be very beautiful, you can be sure he will try to do it weird and strange. My job is to ask him, ‘Can you justify what you’re doing?’
“We’re trying to show how we play with the play, using different elements. There is a constant tension. If you play too much and [move] too far away, the connection with the work will just break. As the dramaturge, my job is to see how we can pull and not let the tension break.”
In 2020, KLSP submitted a video recording of A Tale of Star-Crossed Lovers, its collaboration with Nyoba Kan, for The Naked Theatre competition. Companies from countries such as China, the US, Argentina, Australia and Taiwan took part that year and the grand prize went to South Africa’s Olive Tree Theatre. KLSP’s entry earned special mention from the jury, which included Tadashi Suzuki, Lev Dodin and Peter Stein, as well as an invitation to participate in 2021. But it could not because of pandemic restrictions.
Swee Keong’s maiden attempt to incorporate butoh in Shakespeare was in 2016, when theatre stalwart Faridah Merican approached him with the idea, to mark Shakespeare’s 400th death anniversary. He consulted Soon Heng, who had set up KLSP in 2011 together with Kien Lee, Qahar Aqilah, Sandee Chew and Marina Tan, and the Bard and butoh connected on stage via Richard III. In 2018, they presented Romeo and Juliet, followed by Old Lear a year later.
“We’re trying to portray Shakespeare in another way. In the spirit of KLSP and Nyoba Kan, we play multiple roles. Sometimes, a role can be played by different members of the cast. As actors we always want to rush to get the final result: You want me to cry, I will do it straightaway. Swee Keong tells the actors: ‘If you need your hands to help you get up, do it. But be mindful of the process between sitting and standing. Slow down and feel the space in between’,” says Kien Lee.
Swee Keong, who teaches yoga and has been doing sessions on mindfulness theatre, adds: “I always tell the actors, don’t speak non-stop. Listen to yourself and have some silence in order to observe yourself. This is from my yoga and spiritual practice. The intention is to remind them to be in the present. Then they will have better aura and know what they are doing at the moment.”
Soon Heng, 69, says he is not quite Lear’s age, but his involvement with KLSP and the Bard’s works was inevitable, and only a question of time. “I memorised my first Shakespeare monologue when I was 12, majored in English as an undergraduate and post-graduate, and taught Shakespeare in classrooms in the US.”
Last year, KLSP staged a live interactive online abridged King Lear, with the actors in their own homes, each standing before a webcam and screen. “The audience could see that. Some shared that they were moved, tearing even. I hope to do better this time around for Old Lear.”
'Old Lear' will be staged on June 11 and 12 at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre, H-01, Empire Damansara, Jalan PJU 8/8, Damansara Perdana, Petaling Jaya, Selangor. For enquiries, please call 03 4065 0001. Purchase tickets here.
This article first appeared on May 23, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.