King Shih-Chieh (left) and Tien Hsin perform in The 39 Steps last weekend in Beijing. Photo: CFP
In Chinese-American director Daniel S.P. Yang's adaptation of spy thriller The 39 Steps, the laughs more than the suspense carry the story along. As the Chinese title Bu Bu Jing Xiao implies, the director intends to make the audience laugh at every step.
That's exactly the multi-tonal material veteran actor and star of The 39 Steps King Shih-Chieh thrives on.
In Yang's interpretation of the 1915 Scottish novel, he plays with the nail-biting source material, having King's character, hero Richard Hannay, flirt incessantly, even when his life is in danger.
Staged last weekend in Beijing, The 39 Steps is part of the Taiwan Godot Theatre Company's repertoire. Besides King, it also stars popular young actor Pu Hsueh-Liang. This Taiwanese duo already impressed Chinese mainland audiences with Tuesdays with Morrie in 2011 and 2012 in Shanghai and Beijing.
In an interview with the Global Times, King reflected on his acting career and revealed his ideas on theater.
Playing it straight
As Hannay, King said he serves as the play's straight man.
"I am like a man who sails a boat, which runs the story from the beginning to the end. The other actors play on the boat. Most of the jokes are made by them," King told the Global Times.
Born in 1951, King has been acting professionally for more than three decades.
Called by famous Taiwanese playwright and theater director Stan Lai as "the representative of modern Taiwanese theater," King has frequently appeared in various dramas, films and TV shows such as King of Chess (1991), The Great Conqueror's Concubine (1994) and Reign of Assassins (2010).
One of the most famous characters King has portrayed is Jiang Binliu in Lai's film Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land (1992) alongside actress Brigitte Lin.
He also founded the Lanling Theater Workshop, a Taiwanese drama organization that promoted modern and experimental theater in the 1980s.
Going against the system
Though now one of the most influential Taiwanese performers, King has never received formal acting training.
He acknowledged that he was very rebellious as a teenager, and didn't agree with the traditional, exam-oriented education system.
"I was studying at school, but I did not think the books for exams were meaningful," King said. "I think it kills too much good time of the young people."
But in the end, King had to compromise his ideas somewhat for the sake of his parents. He "reluctantly" studied animal husbandry at a technical college before he worked on a ranch tending hogs.
King said studying farming suited part of his character.
"I like the kind of life where your feet touch the ground and your body sweats," he told the Global Times.
This way of life allowed King enough extra time to immerse himself in the libraries with his beloved plays and literature.
"It was at times very lonely, very self-centered, but very fulfilling," King recalled.
King still remembered his first role as Villager E in a friend's play. During the early days, King said he liked to watch the others acting and think about their choices: why sit in this way, why have this expression here, why smile like this?
He says all these years later, even as a professor teaching his own students, he still thinks back to his early days, and all that he learned from reading, observing other thespians and thinking for himself.
King's acquaintances all know he has a nickname - Jin bao, which translates to "King the treasure." The name doesn't speak to King's influence in his acting circle, but rather from the title figure of Gimpel the Fool, a short story by American author Isaac Bashevis Singer. Gimpel, a simple-minded man, has been cuckolded his entire life. Even in the afterlife, he chooses to believe in his wife's excuses rather than the truth.
King thinks the story reveals the truth of life. A man is cheated, even after his death - an eternal sadness.
"I believe in the eternity of suffering," King said, adding that he thinks himself closer to a tragic figure, but he likes to present tragedies in a comic way.
Sticking to stage
At the age of 62, King still has the playful spirit of a young man.
He told the Global Times that the roles that speak to him are playful and enlightening.
It is the bad guys he has played or seen that have left the biggest impression on him: Iago from Othello, Antonio Salieri from Amadeus and Roy Cohn in Angels in America.
King finds theater acting to be very different from performing in films or for TV. While the latter two can be enhanced with modern technology, theater dramas are more like "an agricultural product."
"Standing on the stage, when I am sweating, the audience can see that," he said. "It is face to face, body to body. We are living in the same space."
Traditional as he is, King does not reject today's experimental dramas.
"The old things are worth respecting and following, but it does not mean it should control all of you," King said. "The desire to chase new ideas will never stop."
Yet King further noted that he would not applaud those who are blind followers of trends or traditions.
"Forgiveness and tolerance should be taught [to the younger generation], but criticism should never be given up," King said.