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King Lear

Dirk Bleicker

In Paris, a Taiwanese actor has a dream about his former Peking Opera master and wakes up to create his own masterpiece. In Berlin, members of a feminist theatre collective wake up to their own origins, by examining their relationships with their fathers. Both result in works of contemporary theatre, based on Shakespeare's great tragedy of generational conflict, love and power. Wu Hsing-Kuo's King Lear and She She Pop's Testament have their Vancouver premieres at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, on now in Vancouver.

Wu was in a terrible state when he was invited to Paris to teach a summer workshop at Théâtre du Soleil in the late 1990s, explains his wife and the show's producer, Lin Hsiu-Wei, on the phone from Taipei. He had disbanded his theatre company after struggling with a lack of support – financial and otherwise – for his work. Because it drew from traditional Chinese performance, the company had political difficulties attracting funding. At the same time, Wu was called a traitor by certain camps, who felt he had abandoned Chinese tradition. Emotionally drained, he called a press conference and called it quits. Like Lear, he had lost his kingdom.

The tangle between generations, between old and new, is central to Wu's company, Contemporary Legend Theatre, which combines traditional Peking or Beijing opera (Wu and Lin use the term Peking Opera) with modern theatre. This is also central to his King Lear.

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The three-act, one-man adaptation (in Mandarin with English surtitles) fuses opera and theatre, with Wu, 59, playing 10 characters in an emotionally and physically challenging – at times acrobatic – performance. The work, which he has now performed for more than a decade in 15 countries, helped him revive his company, his career and his spirit.

It is also deeply personal.

Wu had a falling out with his opera master, who accused his protege of turning his back on Chinese tradition by performing works of Western theatre. (Wu had previously adapted works such as Macbeth and Medea.) This estrangement was particularly hurtful, given their father-son-like relationship: Wu was raised without a father, and his master did not have a son.

In Paris, Wu dreamed of killing his master in a sword fight, and then wrote the first act of his King Lear while still in France.

Two months after Wu returned to Taiwan, his master died. They never reconciled. The third act of his play, when Lear mourns the death of his daughter Cordelia, is very much about Wu apologizing to his master.

"It's deep from his body and his soul," says Lin. "He's so honest."

Testament, too, is deeply personal – in a more straightforward way, with the members of She She Pop appearing onstage with their real-life fathers to examine issues inspired by King Lear, but with a contemporary twist – such as where their fathers will live once they're too old to be on their own, and questions of inheritance.

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She She Pop is a seven-member troupe made up of six women and one man whose members performed together for the first time exactly 20 years ago; they put on fake beards and played covers of ZZ Top songs (thus the troupe's name). The group makes experimental theatre, but in the past few years had been urged to attempt a canonical work. "We always refused and said, 'No, that's not the kind of theatre we make; we don't even like it. We don't want any Shakespeare or anyone interfering with us,'" says member Lisa Lucassen on the telephone from Minneapolis, where she was on tour with Testament. "And then we thought we were kind of ready and had the idea of choosing the most difficult play we could think of, and making it even harder by inviting our fathers."

The plan was particularly fraught, given that many of their fathers, mostly in their 70s, were not fans of their work, preferring more traditional theatre.

"They've converted now; they like it now that they're part of it," says Lucassen, whose own father, in his 80s, is too frail to be in the show, so she represents children whose fathers are absent.

The experiment proved eye-opening for both generations.

"It's been really interesting," says Lucassen, 43. "Because, of course, the fathers are people who explain the world to us when we're little and now they've suddenly come into the world where we are professionals and they're not, so there's one or two things that we know that they don't know."

Testament follows, in a way, the structure of Lear: The first act, for example, deals with love, money, geriatric care – suggested by Lear's decision to divide his kingdom among his daughters, based on how effusively they profess their love for him.

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"We were really surprised about how much it had to do with our lives now," says Lucassen, who had not read the play before this process began in 2009. "This piece is about problems that are totally universal and totally timeless. In the relationship between a father and his daughter that's in every culture, in every century, there are the same issues."

As any fan of Sons of Anarchy – or West Side Story or My Own Private Idaho – knows, Shakespeare's influence on contemporary art is ever-present; this year's PuSh also includes I, Malvolio, British artist Tim Crouch's reimagining of Twelfth Night.

And Shakespeare's concerns and lessons remain as relevant as ever. Flattery will still get you everywhere (for a while, anyway); believing it is still a bad idea.

Testament, in German with English surtitles, is at Vancouver's PuSh Festival through Saturday; King Lear, in Mandarin with English surtitles, runs Feb. 1 and 2.

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