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Wednesday, 28 August 2013 00:00

Beijing style lacks substance

by Gordon Parsons


Edinburgh Playhouse

The visit of Beijing People's Art Theatre was touted as a highlight of the Edinburgh Festival programme and the two main questions engaging expectant audiences were what would the Chinese do with Shakespeare's most overtly political play and what role would be played by the two much advertised heavy metal bands as an integral part of the production.

To be fair, the Bard has given the company's innovatory director Lin Zhaohua little option in interpretation.

The play offers a straightforward choice in its presentation of naked class warfare.

Coriolanus is either a superman war machine, incapable of hiding his overweening patrician disdain for the mindless plebeian masses whose support he needs for the Roman consulship, or a leader whose actions drew the telling comment "pity the land that need heroes" from Bertholt Brecht.

During the last century both right and left-wing regimes have used the play as powerful propaganda.

Zhaohua admitted in pre-visit interviews that he regarded Coriolanus as a hero, so there was no surprise that Pu Cunxin, one of China's leading actors, played the role as a hard-faced figure consumed with his own importance.

The mindless masses - and they really are masses here with over 100 baying for their erstwhile hero's blood - are easily manipulated by their tribunes.

In this somewhat relentless treatment it is difficult to find human interest in the characters.

An exception is when Li Zhen as Coriolanus's mother pleads with her adamantine son - who heads the army of his former Volsci enemies - not to exact revenge on the Rome that has exiled him.

At that point the production captures a sense of real suffering.

The two bands, ominously named Miserable Faith and Suffocated, supply an extra charge of energy to the production and as the battle of words - relatively few of Shakespeare's in Ying Roacheng's translation - had to be understood by most of the audience from video titles the heavy rock did not overwhelm the gist of the plot.

The crowd scenes are disappointingly awkward and the main speeches and dialogue delivered full frontally to the audience, while the neutral grey costumes on a bare stage intentionally give universality to the action but do little to engage the eye.

Admittedly Zhaouhua is not aiming for naturalism. The rather heavy stylised gestural acting, however, makes for a lack of inventiveness that could have made for a memorable production.

In all, there is relatively little of China in a production that apart from the size of the cast could have been produced by any major European company.

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