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China gets on bard

'Lear' features bilingual script, mixed cast

SHANGHAI — Shakespeare is getting a multicultural makeover with the Yellow Earth Theater-Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center co-production of “King Lear,” which, after finishing a two-week run in China, is transferring to the U.K.

Adapted and directed by Yellow Earth’s David Tse Ka-Shing, the production features a mixed cast of Chinese and East Asian British actors, and a bilingual script in Shakespearean English and Chinese (with surtitles in both languages).

Chinese stage/screen actor Zhou Yemang (“Temptress Moon”) plays Lear, with Brit thesp David Yip (“The Chinese Detective”) taking on the roles of Gloucester/Albany.

But dual languages and a mixed cast are not the only innovations. Reconceived in the year 2020, this staging of the famous story about an aging king and his fatally divided family and court portrays Lear as a Chinese business tycoon deciding how to divide his global empire among his three daughters. Communication — or lack thereof — plays a vital role in this interpretation, with mobile phones and video conferencing emphasizing the distances between characters as much as their ability to stay in touch.

“I wanted to explore the potential for misunderstanding,” says the director, “between a Chinese Lear, with his Confucian values, and an English-educated Cordelia no longer fluent in her father’s tongue and reduced to saying nothing.”

“King Lear” closed Nov. 4 in Shanghai, selling out the majority of its performances. Auds were predominantly young and local (rather than expat), and reaction was mixed. Many were impressed by the bravery of the multicultural vision — and excited to see a Shakespeare play (though known, his work is rarely performed in China). Others found the bilingual interpretation labored — lamenting the time required to read surtitles rather than watch the stage action.

Production moves to the U.K. for a tour starting Nov. 15 with a four-night run in the Cube at the Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford-upon-Avon, as part of RSC’s Complete Works Festival 2006. The tour ends Dec. 9.

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