WITHIN a simple countryside apartment, Goneril (Christina Orow) and Regan (Safia Hanifah) hold their little sister Cordelia (Marina Tan) hostage under the pretense of protecting her from their father’s ailing memory.
As the wealthy and powerful man continues his descend into madness, he has become bold in his advances on Cordelia.
But poor Cordelia, made to say those cruel words to her own father, that she “loved him no more or no less than any daughter should”, because her sisters believed it was the right thing to do. Having lost her inheritance and share of the family business, she now has to rely on Goneril and Regan to fend for her and make things right again. Or does she?
From this springboard, Marble Hearts writer and director U-En Ng creates vivid, twisted characters who make audiences question their perception of each sister from Shakespeare‘s King Lear.
Over the course of the first act, Cordelia breaks the fourth wall on occasion to share her innermost thoughts, at one point even justifying the incestuous nature of her relationship with her father. Goneril and Regan drop by often to update her about their old man, but both are eventually manipulated against one another.
The latter half of the play meanwhile depicts an amnesiac in a hospital who two nurses must murder on camera. All three display behaviour consistent with characters from the previous act, but claim different identities.
U-En Ng greatly empowers Cordelia in his play, portraying her as the most immediately evil of three sisters. Played with relish by Marina Tan across both acts, Cordelia alternates between coy and coquettish but grows increasingly manic and delirious from symptoms akin to those caused by schizophrenia — a huge departure from Shakespeare’s simple and honest maiden.
While scowling, alcoholic Regan still must die in the hands of a sister, Marble Hearts acquits prim and austere Goneril. It is Cordelia who has the chutzpah to poison drinks this time round.
Throughout the course of the play, all three women might be plotting against one another but only Cordelia’s motives are clear. Who exactly is telling the truth?
U-En’s allegiance to the bard shines in his rewrite — references to Shakespeare’s catalogue crop up often and Hamlet features prominently in the play. His characters namedrop Shakespeare, and even performs a coin-flipping scene from Tom Stoppard‘s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.
The play’s contemporary setting meanwhile serves as a platform for U-En to display his own take on current issues and Malaysian references.
On top of updating the three sisters for a post-1MDB era and feeding them attention-grabbing phrases (“sovereign wealth fund”, “national security”), a slightly uncomfortable scene features Regan as she bemoan foreigners to the objection of no one in particular. “Immoral,” was all Goneril had to say about her sister’s beliefs.
By the end of both acts, there’s possibility that the play’s true villain(s) remains on the loose.
Boasting sharp twists and turns, Marble Hearts may not resolve all the questions it poses but is clearly an ambitious retelling of an English classic.
There’s reckless wit and confidence in the way the original text has been utilised not so much as a base, but as source of inspiration and detail. Whether or not it escapes the realm of fan-fiction is another question worth asking.
Thanks to top-notch performances from each one of its cast members and passionate writing, Marble Hearts indicates great prospects for its dedicated team. It also served a fitting opener for the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre‘s unique season averse to straightforward retellings of Shakespeare.
Watch out for SIFU Production‘s Lo Mio and Chiu Liet: Forbidden Love in Forbidden City next month, and Shakespeare Demystified: The Merchant of Venice in April.
Marble Hearts runs from 20 – 24 January at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre, and from 28 – 31 January at the Penang Performing Arts Centre. Featured image by Ridzuan Rashid.