Categories - Theatre; Shakespeare
Questioning Heaven, is a filmed stage adaptation of King Lear, performed by Taiwan Bangzi Opera Company. It is a beautifully rich and extravagant production, that is both stunning and fascinating.
Wang Hai-ling is one of Taiwan’s most famous and well-respected musical actors; the show was written especially for her to take lead role, by Professor PERNG Ching-hsi and Professor CHEN Fang, both leading authorities on Shakespeare, and whilst the original Shakespeare play is eminently recognisable throughout, it has been done within the conventions of a culture that does not sit easily with Kings and kingdoms, and where the elderly are deeply revered.
The term ‘opera’ is literally translated as ‘song theatre’, and this is a far better description of what is happening. Bangzi (‘clapper’) refers to the arc shaped instrument made from date or jujube wood that sets the beat of the storytelling throughout; all of the characters are introduced and the essence of the plot is established first, then the lead actor is invited to play the drum before the story continues to unfold. The melodies are, in the main, heptatonic, lyrics structured in couplets, each line containing either seven or ten syllables, with strict rules pertaining to the tones. Questioning Heaven appears to mainly have a heterophonic texture, similar to Gamelan music, where a melody is played over an original melody. Much of that is lost in not knowing the language and matters not one jot, but it is useful in understanding the arc of the production.
In English performance, we are used to characters being introduced at the point they become relevant to the story, but here, everyone is on stage within minutes of the production starting, and by their make-up, costume, gestures and shoes, their status and future actions are fully apparent to the audience. Wei, has least facial markings, so we know she is the virtuous one, in complete contrast to her sister Shao’s long angular carmine cheek wings that mark her out as a ‘wrong-un’ before she has spoken one word. Similarly, when the Empress of Xuanyan is lost, wandering in the wild storm and wearing water sleeves to express her windswept state, we know something of her mental state deteriorating as her hair is unbound and her headdress removed, but we also know clearly that she is still the Empress by the white markings on her face, now added to by two scarlet ones to indicate that she retains her dignity and station even here. The generals and officials wear white soled shoes made from layers of paper stitched together; the white make up of the fool is down the nose line of his face rather than on his cheeks; when Duanmu is in the wilderness he appears with pheasant feathers in his hair – a signifier that he is still important, even in this alien state; the Empress has the four authority flags of an army Marshall when she does her combat dance, but, make no mistake, they are in yellow silk emblazoned with red dragons, something that only the royal leader could get away with.
The costumes are gorgeous; embroidered, many layered complexities in which each pattern and colour is there for a reason and to give added clarity to the character’s personality. I spotted log-cabin work, passementerie, reverse applique, screen printing, stick work, tjanting marks, leather work, and lots and lots of lavish embroidery techniques. I found myself re-winding again and again to focus in on particular costumes, and found it intriguing to see how costumes were changed, added to, or taken away from, as the play moved forward. To my joy, the bonus material at the end of the film contains not only fantastic rehearsal footage, but an interview with the costume designer LI Yu-shen, and whilst I can’t understand his words, the look into his work studio and the costume drawings will provide me with visual feasting for weeks. I wonder if he wants an aged assistant…
The Chinese stage is predominantly an empty one. No structures are built, doors and thresholds are indicated by body gestures, and it is incumbent upon the actors to convey whether the set is a royal palace or a battlefield. Big silk tapestries serve as the boundary between the front stage and the back stage. In traditional theatre, audience participation helps – for instance, they may be handed small flags with fish or clouds printed on them to wave as the story moves into a storm. The Taiwan Bangzi Opera Company no doubt still employs this method in its extensive schools and community work, but here we are treated to magnificent stage projections on to the silk tapestries, strobe lighting and multi-media special effects, which all add to the many stratas of this lavish production.
From the moment that the ‘hundred knights’ fill the opening scenes, and our Lear equivalent, Empress of Xuanyan, thumang swinging, enters to much pomp, music and celebration, this production has bedazzling pageantry written throughout.
She sings of how she has ruled the land on her own for eighteen years.
“Unceasing wars have aged me, worn me down… and now, at last, the land is unified.”
When she sings the line “Xuanyuan Empire will cut in three,” everyone looks worried. Having celebrated the land’s unity, how can the Queen not see that she now intends disunity and division? Three daughters, a request as to who loves her most, an answer she didn’t expect, and a fool who says, “Give me some land too”. It’s all sounding very familiar, but the exquisite sense of spectacle, the visual overload and the realisation that hits part way through viewing that you’re unconsciously registering the unspoken cues, is so satisfyingly joyous.
Questioning Heaven is shown as part of York International Shakespeare Festival 2021. The full programme can be seen here.
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