Review: KING LEAR, Riverside Studios

A visceral take that challenges Western conventions.

By: May. 04, 2024
Review: KING LEAR, Riverside Studios
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Review: KING LEAR, Riverside Studios Cutting Shakespeare isn’t rare, with time restraint and accessible efficiency at the top of the list. What happens when you remove the text altogether, leaving only the bare bones of the story? Hong Kongese company Nonverbal Theatre of Gesture have the answer.

An international ensemble join director Shu-wing Tang for an all-female rendition of King Lear delivered without a single word spoken to the crowd. It’s a breathtaking achievement. A style so removed from our theatrical tradition, it introduces a particularly minimalistic vision that succeeds in conveying the Bard’s multi-faceted tale of family, power, and loyalty.

This version is less “old-man yells at the sky” and more “ageing person struggles to rationalise their place in a changing world”. Tang challenges the restrictions of language and celebrates the very essence of storytelling. It’s weirdly captivating. The piece is definitely one for the enthusiasts and the curious; the plot is easier understood if the viewer is already knowledgeable of the foundations of the play, but the layperson will find plenty to chew too. Across the board, we witness an excellent lateral interpretation of the original material.

Review: KING LEAR, Riverside Studios
Cecilia Yip in King Lear

The basis of the scenes is extrapolated, deconstructed, and then distilled before being offered as an exacerbation of the performative nature of theatre. The astounding attention to the physical vocabulary of the actors is only the start. Though sound and light come into play often, it’s when these elements retreat that the production truly comes alive. The immense silences generate an arresting void where every loud sigh or cough or step from each side of the proscenium is shared in a communal experience. You realise how noisy a theatre audience is.

While we’re safely concealed by darkness, there’s nowhere to hide on stage - not even the script. Shakespeare’s characters appear as their Platonic ideals, their archetypes, in a riveting dissection of their nature. Three hours or more, then, whittle down to a sharp one and a half. Cecilia Yip takes on the brash and unfair ruler in a performance that’s as magnetic in its delivery as it is touching in its journey. It’s unnecessary to bring her and the rest of the company’s gender into the conversation: each of them may as well only represent the neutral traits of their role. It’s a fascinating point of view.

Review: KING LEAR, Riverside Studios
The performing company of King Lear

Cassandra Tang is impressive in the duality of Cordelia and the Fool, but her vicious sisters steal the scene. Peggy Chow and Ting-Kwan Lau infuse Regan and Goneril with a creepy vibe. It’s as if the twins from The Shining had grown up just a little bit incestuous. Dressed with dignified elegance by Hon-wai Yuen (who curates the set design too), their hostility is a game of glances and stares. In fairness, each performer in this remarkable team possesses astonishing eloquence in their presence. More highlights in a cast full of them, Ki-yan Ko is a distinguished Albany and Lindzay Chan is heartbreaking as Gloucester.

As a whole, this iteration has a lot of appeal, but it’s also quite an advanced take on Shakespeare. While it might be fairly difficult to follow the subtle twists in the tale for someone who’s never seen King Lear before, it’s an eye-opening opportunity to appreciate the power of drama and how it can be used to breach the barriers of communication. Tableaux vivants of profound and unquestionable clarity sit side by side with visceral translations of human pain. Tang’s work is one of a kind and this project can’t be missed.

King Lear runs at Riverside Studios until 12 May.

Photo credit: Tik Hang Cedric Yip


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