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Shakespeare’s reluctant understudy

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This year Lim Kien Lee saved the day (or rather, the play) by stepping into not one, but two roles meant for someone else. Both were Shakespeare plays. One was in mid-run; a smallish role of an abridged Merchant of Venice. The other was the title character in the full-length Titus Andronicus. Not bad for someone who once thought non-fluency would keep him from doing English theatre.

If there had not been a Q&A session at the end of Merchant of Venice, one would have gone on assuming that casting Kien Lee as Nerissa was inspired comedic genius. So naturally there was second round of applause when we learned that the character’s gowns were altered last minute for the play’s director, Lim Kien Lee. The role had belonged to recently crowned world-famous comedian Hannan Azlan, but she fell ill and had to be hospitalized.

Kien Lee says he noticed in earlier performances that Hannan was feeling unwell. “I was already thinking of contingencies. Luckily the part didn’t have many lines.”

"Ay, if a woman live to be a man..." and vice versa. Kien Lee tries on the role of Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice.

“Ay, if a woman live to be a man…” and vice versa. Kien Lee tries on the role of Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice.

He was not as ‘lucky’ a few months later when once again he was asked to come to the rescue. This time it was to become General Titus Andronicus, a role with lots and lots of lines.

Fellow Shakespearean actor Lim Soon Heng was the original choice for the role. His face was already – and would remain – on all promotional material. Soon Heng had to have knee surgery and when it became clear that he would not recover in time for the performance, Kien Lee picked up the general’s sword.

A childhood prophecy fulfilled

As a child, Kien Lee had a favourite character in a Japanese comic book series. The man was a ‘replacement actor’ who flawlessly stepped into roles that other actors had to abandon for one reason or another. “He would work for free as long as the producer agreed to let him steal from the audience,” Kien Lee laughs. After being replacement actor twice this year, he adds,“this could be my new career.” “With or without the thievery?” I ask. He laughs again as he gives me a non-committal wink.

Memorizing lines

“People tease me that I learn text very fast because I went to a Chinese School,” says Kien Lee. “Actually, I work very hard, studying the lines day and night, breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Not the kind of role one learns by osmosis

Not the kind of role one learns by osmosis

It was in school that he first started acting and although he preferred English theatre he felt not having mastery over the language would disqualify him from most speaking roles.

Everything changed when he was offered an ensemble part in an upcoming musical. The director Christopher Jacobs took a very unusual approach with the actors. “For the first few rehearsals, we didn’t use the text at all,” says Kien Lee. The performance was cancelled because of funding problems but not before Kien Lee had gained a career-changing perspective: “Theatre doesn’t have to be about the words.”

The cast of the discarded musical had enjoyed the rehearsals so much that they asked Christopher to hold a regular workshop. It was here that Kien Lee ‘did’ Shakespeare for the first time. “I did Sonnet 75,” he remembers. “It really opened my eyes.”

Even native English speakers make the unfortunate assumption that Shakespeare can only be understood, let alone performed, by English literature majors. Yet Kien Lee found that his limited English skills furnished an advantage. He tackled lines “as they were in a foreign language, I listened to the sound and rhythm.”

In 2009, Kien Lee appeared in his first Shakespeare play.

Shakespeare for everyone

The Australian Embassy had brought over director Jeff Kevin that year and then again the next year to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Kien Lee had roles in both.

The embassy declined to bring Jeff back for a third time; he was, after all, directing plays by an English, not Australian, playwright. His Malaysian alumni – including Soon Heng, Sandee Chew, Qahar Aqilah and Kien Lee – decided to go at it alone and Shakespeare Demystified (shortened Shakespeare plays with educational asides) was born.

Beyond Shakespeare 400

As part of Shakespeare Demystified (now the KL Shakespeare Players) Kien Lee has played many of the bard’s best known roles, including Hamlet and Othello. Learning Shakespeare is not a problem, he says. In fact, Kien Lee admits that it was harder for him to learn the modern English lines for his role in Angels in America because that was mainly prose. “I had to work really hard to find the flow in what I was saying and find the motivation behind it.”

His background helped. This is what he wishes more people would understand: “If you want to be a serious actor, do Shakespeare.”

Titus Andronicus 2016. Whether or not there's "a reason for these miseries", Shakespeare can count on Kien Lee to come to the rescue. Photo by

Titus Andronicus 2016. Whether or not there’s “a reason for these miseries”, Shakespeare can count on Kien Lee to come to the rescue. Photo by Ch’ng Shi P’ng.

In 2016, Kien Lee had planned to take a year off acting to off to direct but, alas, for health reasons (not his) he was pushed back into the limelight. The year of Shakespeare 400 may be over but Kien Lee already has plans to direct MacBeth in what we fans like to call Shakespeare 401. A serious actor, it’s clear that either as an original or replacement, Kien Lee will be doing Shakespeare for many years to come.

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Amy De Kanter
Amy De Kanter

Former Chief Editor, frequent contributor and enthusiastic audience member, Amy is thrilled to have a job that lets her do three of the things she loves most.