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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A Case of Too Many Tongues

How a pan-Asian play left audiences baffled

By Norma Reveler / Tokyo


IT IS A BRAVE man who takes a path he knows to be strewn with potential pratfalls. Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen chose to do just that when he set out to produce a pan-Asian interpretation of Shakespeare's King Lear. Still, how can you have creativity without a little risk?

The production, which has just ended a tour of Japan, proved to be a mix of mixes. Simply titled Lear, it draws on half a dozen cultures and almost as many languages, multiple theater techniques, traditional and contemporary music and a host of costume styles. Diversity ruled, but in the end it wasn't enough to keep some of the Tokyo audience from nodding off in their seats.

Lear is a collaborative effort between Ong and Japanese playwright Kishida Rio. Together, they reinvented the tragedy of the willful king who rejects his youngest and most loving child, Cordelia, only to be betrayed by her two evil and ambitious sisters. Original characters (for example, second daughter Regan) are eliminated and new ones added. The point, Ong says, is to bring out the voices that were not really heard in the original tale -- those of the women and the young.

In fact, the play could just as easily have been named after Lear's eldest daughter, Goneril, whose position as a woman trapped in a patriarchy is one of the production's many themes. After murdering her father and sister to keep the throne, a lonely Goneril asks: Who is behind me?

It is an apt question for young people trying to create a new Asia, says Ong. "They have to harness the traditions of the past to move forward. Yet sometimes they become destined to repeat the old mistakes." Lear is his vehicle for exploring tension between tradition and change, between authority and independence.

Ong's urge to "see how different cultures would intersect" makes for some inspired choices. Weaving elements of the noh play Lady Aoi into the scene where Lear mourns the death of Cordelia is one. In Shakespeare's original, the king expresses his grief in a semi-crazed monologue where he rages against fortune. In the Ong version, his loss is expressed in a silent dance, Lady Aoi-style, with the costume his daughter once wore.

There are other clever touches -- for instance the matching of characters with dramatic forms. Lear's melancholy thrives on the dignity and ritual of actor Umewaka Naohiko's noh theater, Goneril's passion on the flamboyance of Jiang Qihu's Beijing opera, and Cordelia's gentle nature on the grace of Peeramon Chomdhavat's Thai classical dance.

Explaining his pan-Asian concept, Ong says: "It is my philosophy that no one culture can completely understand the play [without subtitles], so that it doesn't belong to any one culture." To him, that includes having the actors -- drawn from Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and China -- deliver their lines in their native tongues. To some in the audience, though, it clearly seemed like spending an evening trapped in Babel.

Not that Ong is oblivious to the dangers. "I was afraid it would become a very exotic piece and I constantly had to check myself not to go overboard," he says. "I wanted it to be a piece about Asians seen through our eyes. But I knew that if we failed to get the story and emotions across, we wouldn't have anything."

Unfortunately, he never really resolves that dilemma. Ong's solution is to bombard the audience with a theatrical kaleidoscope, with modern music played on folk instruments such as the Indonesian gamelan and the Japanese biwa, and costumes that range from a flashy, silver straightjacket to a subdued kimono-inspired robe. Perhaps, Lear might have been more successful if the cast and crew had been given more time. They had only six and a half weeks of rehearsal.

Lear has been an expensive experiment for the Japan Foundation Asia Center, which commissioned the work for its showcase of contemporary theater. It cost them $1.5 million just to mount the 12-day run in Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka. And a six-week regional workshop in Singapore last year, where many of the cast were recruited, cost another $75,000. Some people might wonder how much value the Foundation got for its money.

Certainly, if Ong hoped to rouse his audience to think about their identities in a changing world, he will probably be sorely disappointed by the Japanese reaction. At the end of the performance, most people were simply trying to figure out how many languages they had heard that night. And the question lingering in their minds was not so much Who are we? as What was that all about?


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