It has been 20 years since Wu Hsing-kuo (吳興國) and his Contemporary Legend Theater (當代傳奇劇場) company decided to take on some of the toughest works in the Shakespearian canon and give them a Chinese twist. The work he tackled first was Macbeth, which developed into City of Desire (慾望城國), and this weekend, its revival will be the centerpiece of the company's 20th anniversary celebration.
In following weeks, two other reinterpretations of the bard will be staged as part of Contemporary Legend's Oriental Shakespeare. From Oct. 20, Wu will restage The Tempest (暴風雨), the most recent of Wu's Shakespearian adaptations, and to finish the series from Oct. 27, King Lear (李爾在此), Wu's bravura performance in which he attempts to present all the roles of this massively complex play in a one-man show.
It might be said that Wu shares with Macbeth an overweening ambition, for his was a double ambition. Simply staging Shakespeare in Chinese was not enough, he also wanted to use these classic plays to breath new life into traditional Beijing opera. He was one of a generation of young performers in Taiwan — of whom Lin Hwai-min (林懷民) has achieved the greatest international recognition — who were looking for new forms of expression that would not only connect Taiwan with the world, but which would also allow them to build on the foundations of local arts and traditions.
Wu was taking a great risk. At an emotional press conference held Tuesday to celebrate the company's 20th anniversary, Hsu Po-yun (許博允), the founder of the New Aspect Cultural and Educational Foundation (新象文教基金會) reminisced about the challenge faced by artists, especially those in the traditional arts, who dared to break with convention; they risked derision from traditionalists without any guarantee of appealing to a new generation.
Joining Wu in the creation of City of Desire was the already highly respected Beijing opera star Wei Hai-min (魏海敏). In an interview with the Taipei Times, she said that she found the challenge almost insuperable at first, and was deeply disappointed with her performance in the role of Lady Macbeth when the show was first staged in 1986. “There were so many elements that simply did not exist in my training as a Beijing opera performer,” she said. “My part had always been to present the conventional female virtues; it was such a change to tackle a strong, ambitious woman.”
Wei spoke of the need to develop a completely new physical language to present these new character types. “By working with Wu, I was changed from being a performer into a creative artist,” she said.
Her experience with Wu has had an impact beyond the Contemporary Legend Theater, and has led her to create such memorable Beijing opera roles as Cao Chi-chiao (曹七巧) in The National Guoguang Opera Company's (國立國光劇團) The Golden Cangue (金鎖記) earlier this year.
Although Contemporary Legend's repertoire cannot be described as Beijing opera, Wei said that the performances that the group has created would be impossible without the rigorous training that Beijing opera performers are forced to undergo.
But when City of Desire was still in the planning stage, there were formidable problems with how the show should look, and how it could be performed. Twenty years on, with experiments that have encompassed Hamlet (titled War and Eternity), Medea (titled Lo Lan Nu), the Oresteia, the Tempest and King Lear, much has been achieved in creating a fluid theatrical language that meets Contemporary Legend's performance needs.