2. The Play: Lear’s Solo Dance in Costume

Lear is Here dir. Wu Hsing-kuo, Taiwan, 2001

Chapter 2: The Play: Lear’s Solo Dance in Costume


Wu begins with a 27-minute solo performance as King Lear dressed in a version of the traditional costume for the lao sheng role, as an old man of high authority, in beautiful robes and long white beard.  His movements are more fluid than in traditional practice, the music is often discordant, and his makeup — broad dark lines for the wrinkles of worry and old age — is simpler than the norm for this kind of role although it may seem quite stylized if one is not familiar with Chinese opera.  The performance may seem to be a version of Lear’s “storm” scenes in the play  (3.2, 3.4) as it is punctuated by thunder and other storm effects, but it draws from many other scenes in the play to tell one kind of story about King Lear, focusing on his relationship to his daughter, his madness, old age, regret and childishness, and the many strands of his own persona, even his identity as a whole may seem to be  fragmenting.

At one point, Li’ Er loses his platform shoe and puns on the Chinese word for this, which resembles the word for child.  The subtitles, moving from “shoe” to “kit” to “kid” (“I have no kid”)  do not give an adequate sense of the wordplay here, but it is clear that the performer’s loss of part of the jingju costume and the characters estrangement from his daughter are connected.

Suggestions for watching:  notice elements of the visual and performative vocabulary Wu creates for the role of Li’Er — some of it is standard for old men in jingjiu (for example the trembling hands) and some is not, but whatever the source, Wu tells the story in part through repeated gestures and movements, gathering and stroking his beard, running, collapsing, reviving, crossing his eyes, at times seeming to register the shocks of his memories and feelings as blows or pains within his torso, accompanied by percussion.

Study Questions

  1. What are some of the themes of this presentation?  Obviously some derive from King Lear, but Wu is selective, and focuses on certain aspects of the story and of Lear’s character — and he may add some of his own.
  2. Shakespeare’s tragedies are famous for mingling comic elements with tragic.  Wu’s adaptation also has moments of comedy within a sad story.  What are some of these, and how do they modify the story?  Do they differ from such moments in the text?  While King Lear as a whole has comic elements,  is Lear himself ever a comic figure (as distinguished from a foolish one)?
  3. Use of props (including imagined props and parts of Li’Er’s own costume and beard).  – comment, select.


Choose a topic below and create two short clips and write a 2-3 sentence commentary for each clip.

  • Wu’s significant use of prop, imagined object or costume
  • An example of Wu enacting Li’Er’s regret, old age, strength, weakness, folly, kindness — or any other emotion.
  • Write a two or three sentence commentary for each.