Local forum for Shakespeare fans

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 December, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 December, 1998, 12:00am

It's a tricky question with no clear-cut answer. In Shakespeare's King Lear, regarded as one of the world's most complex and ambiguous plays, was the king really mad in the sense that we would understand it today? You might think this would be a debate for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, or members of an amateur dramatics society wrestling with how to play the parts.

But last month, it was a point of earnest discussion for eight enthusiasts in Hong Kong who simply enjoy the plays and want to learn more about them.

Around a large table in a room furnished with Indian rugs and lit by candles were of course, a Briton, but also Americans, Hong Kongers and others.

The atmosphere in the Christian Island City Church's place of worship near Lan Kwai Fong was relaxed, with people sipping coffee and cracking the odd joke.

All were Shakespeare enthusiasts, not necessarily well-versed in the Bard but sharing a passion for his works.

Lear was the subject because a local drama group had recently staged it. The play, written in 1604 and being performed by a Japanese group at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in January, is filled with hidden meanings and sub-texts.

Essentially, Lear is an ageing English king who decides to share his kingdom with his three daughters, spending his remaining years as a guest at their courts.

However, the plan falters when his youngest and favourite daughter, Cordelia, refuses to earn her share by joining in her two elder siblings' declarations of love for their father.

The angry king divides his land between Cordelia's elder sisters, Goneril and Regan. But when the theory is put into practice - and the siblings make the king's life unbearable - Lear seeks a life of his own on the heath, thus sparking his descent into madness.

Bryn Williamson, a Briton who is an English teacher at a Chinese secondary school, said: 'I don't think it's a true madness. It's a madness at what his daughters are doing to him.' He points to advances in medical knowledge, such as of Alzheimer's Disease, that could explain the king's behaviour.

William Cheng, a travel agent, agrees. 'I read that he was mad only in an Elizabethan England sense.' And what of the role of the king's fool - who urges the sovereign not to split his land among his daughters - in relation to the sovereign's madness? Stephen Hackman, an American who organised the first of these evenings in February, wondered whether the fool was a vehicle which Shakespeare used to play mind games with the audience.

'Is Shakespeare the fool, just as the chorus is in a Greek tragedy?' he asked.

Mr Cheng noted that the fool was no longer required once Lear turned mad.

'When Lear finally goes mad, he can see the truth and becomes sane.' After the discussion, Mr Hackman, a pastor with the non-denominational Christian Island City Church, said he had set up the weekly meetings so that people could explore their interest in Shakespeare.

Since the South China Morning Post's visit, the group has moved on to discussing Hamlet, also regarded as difficult because it contains several parallel plots.

'People fear Shakespeare. They assume everyone else is a Shakespeare expert,' said Mr Hackman. 'I think in the first few pages [of a play script] you tend to think, 'What on earth is going on?' 'Then there is a shift in gear and suddenly it comes alive and you just think 'My God, this is beautiful'.' He said the dialogue seemed not to present any difficulties for those whose first language was not English.

'Some come to help their English. Some just enjoy listening. Each person takes it at the pace they feel comfortable with.' Mr Williamson agreed that many people found Shakespeare hard, but added: 'I don't know why people are that put off. It's really not that unintelligible.' New Zealander Blair Donaldson said: 'What's nice is that nobody says you're wrong like they might at school. They throw in their own ideas and no one laughs.' He regarded Shakespeare as a way of trying to understand how society had evolved in the 400 years since the Bard first wrote.

'I find at these evenings that we often tend to look at comparisons with how things were then and how they are today.' Mr Hackman said he had been sceptical about how the first evening would progress. But members' enthusiasm meant he changed his initial plan of holding the meetings once a fortnight to weekly.

Members decide among themselves what to study. As for what participants can gain from the evenings, he said simply: 'I think it's important that everyone should know how to express themselves, voice their opinions and to structure an argument.' The Shakespeare group meets every Thursday at Island City Church studio, Room C, 4/F Ho Lee Commercial Building, 38 D'Aguilar St, Central. Tel 2582-0456