Chinese Coriolanus at the Edinburgh Festival: Play out of Context?

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, directed by Lin Zhaohua, translated by Ying Roucheng and performed by the Beijing People’s Art Theatre (BPAT) at the Edinburgh Playhouse: Edinburgh International Festival, 20-21 August, 2013

Coriolanus (c) BPAT

Coriolanus (c) BPAT

(I was initially gutted to realise that Lin Zhaohua’s Coriolanus, originally performed in Beijing in 2007, was playing at the Edinburgh International Festival this August for ‘two days only’: those two days were the first  after my baby’s due date! We live in England…  ‘It’s only a play,’ I tried to tell myself. Only a play directed by the main subject of my PhD, Chinese experimental theatre director, Lin Zhaohua… But thanks to the extraordinary punctuality and rapidity of delivery of my youngest son (we didn’t have time to get out of the taxi!), and the extraordinary generosity and understanding of my civil partner, I managed to get to see Coriolanus on the Wednesday night, so exhausted and baby-brained that I was relieved that the production was punctuated by the controversial intrusion of heavy metal bands – they certainly kept me awake and paying attention!)

I saw Lin Zhaohua’s remarkable post-Tiananmen Hamlet in 1995, at the Tokyo International Festival. Then, in 2011, I also saw his renderings of Ibsen’s The Master Builder and Chekhov’s Ivanov, as part of the Beijing People’s Art Theatre’s ‘Lin Zhaohua Festival’. All starred his long term collaborator, the veteran actor Pu Cunxin, and all, it appeared to my friend and interpreter, Zhou Yan, and to me, were about lonely men, alienated in someway from the communities around them.

Pu Cunxin as Coriolanus (c) BPAT

Pu Cunxin as Coriolanus (c) BPAT

During our interview with Lin (2011), he told us excitedly that he had just been in discussion with ‘a man from Edinburgh’. But how would Coriolanus fare when transferred to the Scottish stage, my friend wondered? Would Westerners be able to understand him? Reviews of the Edinburgh production have been mixed, as was my own response to it, but whatever my reservations about some of the nuances of this incarnation, it was certainly a brilliant night’s entertainment. Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare’s most political tragedies – variously interpreted as a critique of the abuse of autocratic power or as a warning against the fickleness of the masses – is an interesting choice for a director who repeatedly insists that he is not political, especially if viewed as part of the triptych of his other Shakespeare appropriations, the aforementioned Hamlet, and Richard III. When Lyn Gardner dismissed the production as ‘offering empty spectacle in the place of nuanced political comment and metaphor’, she was rightly upbraided by a young Chinese woman in the comments below: I think having chosen this play is one brave movement itself. As scholars Li Ruru and Alexa (Alex) Huang have explored in relation to Shakespeare in Mainland China, and Dennis Kennedy has explored in relation to political Shakespeare behind the Iron Curtain, sometimes simply the act of putting on a play is the political comment and metaphor. Lin Zhaohua is a complex case because of his longevity and status – in the 1980s he was the founder of modern Chinese theatre experimentalism, along with self-exiled playwright and Nobel laureate Gao Xinjian, a form that in itself was deeply politically subversive in its rejection of socialist realism, and as a result they faced official criticism and some of their work was banned; yet, as a Beijing intellectual through and through he has chosen to stay in the politically conservative capital city of Beijing (he hails from neighbouring Tianjin) and had formerly risen to the position of BPAT’s vice president. For me, what is often most intriguing is how practioners appear to work within the restraints of the system,  yet encode their work with slippery, ambivalent details that to outsiders of that system may seem ‘opaque’ or simply absurd (as opposed to Absurd…).

I have linked to several other reviews so for the rest of this one I will concentrate on what I think were the main areas of cross-cultural tension or misapprehension in the reception of this production, and think about the ways I would try to understand them in a Chinese context.  Please feedback in the comments section below with your insights, and any corrections.  It is also important to note when responding to the professional criticism (cynicism?) of broadsheet reviews that the performance I attended was met with rapturous applause and much excited post-performance chattering, whether from elderly European Sinofiles or young East Asian rock fans...

The first, and most talked about, innovation was Lin Zhaohua’s incorporation of two Beijing bands, one heavy metal, the other more indie rock, into BPAT’s production – used not only as incidental music but, as commentators have put it, as a metaphorical battle of the bands between Coriolanus/the Romans and Aufidius/the Volscians. ‘Heavy Rock Coriolanus Turns Up Volume at  Edinburgh Festival’ shouted the BBC headline.  Andrew Dickson of the Guardian, veteran reviewer of the World Shakespeare Festival and Globe to Globe, loved it, describing it as surprising, gnarly, and as adding ‘volcanic energy’ when the bands Miserable Faith and Suffogated ‘slide in periodically from the wings and punctuate the action with frenzied surges of nu-metal.’ Dominic Cavendish of The Telegraph, in another thoughtful, if not so thoroughly researched, review found it an ‘arresting concept’ evoking  ‘China’s tumultuous embrace of Western influences.’  (Gardner showed her disdain by barely mentioning them.)  Many reviewers returned to this idea of Western influence in the music.  In fact, Brian G Cooper of The Stage complained that in Lin’s Coriolanus, a production transferred from Beijing (unlike the National Theatre of China’s Richard III devised for last year’s Globe to Globe) the ‘uniquely Chinese theatrical influences are conspicuously absent’ throughout. He was perhaps not aware that until very recently Chinese traditional theatre (Beijing Opera etc) and the more recognisable Chinese spoken theatre, originally a western import, have been two distinct traditions – I certainly had no awareness of this until I began researching this area. This got me thinking about the use of music, specifically, the music found in Chinese traditional theatre. These rock bands reminded me of the musicians in Beijing Opera, who often sit onstage, visible to the audience. And while British audiences expect lutes and flutes to accompany Shakespeare, Beijing Opera goes for clashing cymbals (if not thrashing guitars) whenever a General or king enters the scene.  Could this supposedly Western-style production be rather more Chinese then we give it credit for? And Andrew Dickson was onto something with his reference to nu-metal.  Rock music in China has a political heritage.  It’s first post-Cultural Revolution, Open Door Policy rock god, Cui Jian, entertained the students in Tiananmen Square, his ‘Nothing to My Name’ becoming part of the soundtrack to the demonstrations.

Cui Jian (image from the Arts Desk website)

Cui Jian (image from the Arts Desk website)

Which brings me to reflecting on the problems that some had in engaging with the production at all, who felt it was ‘lost in translation’. Andrew Dickson was at an advantage – he had been sent to Beijing to interview the Master Lin.  But he also has another advantage: he does his homework, finding out answers to the things he doesn’t know or doesn’t understand. This couldn’t be said of most of the reviewers on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review from the Edinburgh Festival. If I wasn’t writing this blog I would doubtless be whinging about the waste of licence fee payers’ money. Haven’t they heard of Wikipedia???  😉

Tom Sutcliffe described it as ‘a very dull production. Pu Cunxin (Coriolanus) comes to the front of the stage and many of the scenes are blocked geometrically so the characters are all speaking out at us, not addressing the characters that they are actually talking to in those scenes, and it gave it a very rigid, very formal feel which I felt just drained all the excitement out of it.’  I wondered if he had ever heard of this German bloke called Brecht and how he had gone to see this performance by this Chinese bloke called Mei Lanfang, and as a result come up with the V-Effekt…

Pu Cunxin’s ‘a bit RSC,’ continued David Schneider, ‘a bit RSC meaning he loves the costume, he loves the swagger, the swish of the cloak and standing with one leg forward and leaning on it’. Tom took it up: ‘It’s a very old kind of actor manager style. Or it looks that way to us. ‘ Ay, there’s the rub. It looks that way to us. Martin Hoyle in the FT saw ‘rhetorical moments’ which found ‘the individual actor caught in an attitude that fleetingly resembles the pose of a Victorian theatrical print or cut-out character for a toy theatre.’ And those fleeting resemblances were certainly there. But that was not all that was there.  In the swagger, the swish of the cloak, the fixed postures, were echoes of other generals from other traditions. And with contemporary spoken drama directors in China intent on Sinocizing the form, they were perhaps intentional echoes.

Yue Opera General, RSC website (c)

Yue Opera General, RSC website (c)

They were quite right about the crowd scenes, though.  These scenes which must have been so electrifying in Beijing were indeed ‘limp’.  Mostly young, middle class looking girls and boys with shiny hair (although not as shiny as the long locks of Suffocated headbangers) they resembled overseas students rather than democracy protesters or rioting peasants, which it turns out was exactly what they were. With one hour’s training and one rehearsal, these locally recruited extras were actually pretty good in the circumstances, if not very menacing (see linlin_peony’s response to Gardner’s review for further details.)  This is perhaps the main reason that Tom Sutcliffe and Gardner, coming from a culture where we expect our political theatre to look like and market itself like the Belarus Free Theatre,  struggled to see the politics.  Sutcliffe introduced his BBC review with ‘the production seems to studiously avoid any allusion to popular discontent in China or any direct suggestion that a notionally socialist country might have its own patrician class’. What if he had read about the original production in Beijing? In his interview with me in 2011 Lin had said, ‘In Coriolanus, I cast real min gong [migrant farm labourers] to express my ideas about society – it was my way to express who are the real heroes.’ My interpreter suggested that New China is built with their hands, although older Chinese, such as William Sun Huizhu, writing in the programme, notes that ‘My guess is that the translator Ying Ruocheng and the director Lin Zhaohua’s shared interest in this play, about a leader devoured by the masses he arrogantly believes he is leading, could be attributed to their experience in China’s Cultural Revolution.’ On Saturday Review only David Schneider got it: ‘There was for me a frisson about the politics though – there was that scene where they do discuss whether the herd, the populace, should have any rights at all and I think that if you do contextualise a Chinese director putting on Coriolanus and letting it speak for itself, for me there was a glow in those scenes.’

Which raises the question, is the problem (if there is a problem) with the production, the place of performance or the unpreparedness of the audience?

Does a play lose meaning out of its context? And should we judge it as a failure if we don’t understand it, like Sutcliffe and Gardner, or is it an opportunity to learn, and learn to appreciate a little more about what theatre is, as did so many other reviewers and spectators?

On another note, I was relieved to discover that Lin Zhaohua was no more forthcoming on the issue of politics with either Andrew Dickson or Mark Fisher of The Scotsman than he had been with me…

(You can read more on metal in China on MTV Iggy here Lin Zhaohua’s Coriolanus: Heavy Metal Shakespeare in China)

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