Wednesday 21 August 2013

EIF 2013 - The Tragedy of Coriolanus, or, A Bit Baffled Really

I honestly don't know what I expected this production to be like. In recent years we've had quite a lot of Asian shows at the International Festival, including two Shakespeares back in 2011. In London the Globe has been taking the lead in bringing international Shakespeare to the UK. I heard great things about the Globe to Globe season and very much enjoyed the Balkan Henry VI which was the only part I managed to catch myself. I mention all this because I feel it at least gives me some qualifications for judging Shakespeare performance in another language. I feel the need to make that point because, unusually, I found it very difficult to know what to make of this performance.

It certainly is on an epic scale in ways which only the International Festival could afford to mount. There is an impressive company of extras playing the Romans/Volsces. My impression from the programme credits is that many of these extras were non-professionals but I may be mistaken on this – there are certainly issues with their performance which I'll come back to. Then you have the two much publicised heavy metal bands on trucks at either side of the stage. They are very loud and to start with their flourishes and drumming do give point to those expressions in the text, but I wasn't convinced their presence overall helped to make strong theatre. The set, on the other hand, is simpler than one might expect. I'm not sure the performance gained from the frequent grinding of the Playhouse pit lift (sounding badly in need of refurbishment), and I'd be curious to know if the ladders at the back of the stage belong to the theatre or the company – if the latter they were among the more pointless pieces of set I've ever seen as they were never used. The odd thing about all this bigness is that it is counterpointed by a lot of periods when very little is happening on stage at all, and even when all the people were present the atmosphere often felt just a little bit dead.

I have known other language Shakespeares when individual performances have transcended the language barrier. There were many moments when one felt individual performers (especially Pu Cunxin's Coriolanus) were delivering the text well, but this did not amount to a convincing cumulative drama. Partly I think this was due to so much text being delivered direct to audience (according to the programme one of director Lin Zhaohua's favourite devices). This lessened the production's ability to construct convincing relationships between the protagonists. The other problem was the surtitles. Not for the first time at International Festival theatre these struck me as inadequate, far too often the screens would go blank while discussion on stage continued or flash up exchanges that it was impossible to connect to what was happening on stage. Doubtless putting up all the exchanges would not be practical, but I can't help feeling it should be possible to do better than this. I felt far less at sea at the Globe Henry VI which didn't bother with surtitles at all.

I mentioned issues with the large crew of extras. The main one here was that they just never really convinced me as a mob – rather you felt they were following gestures in which they had been very well trained, there was a lack of that critical sense of danger, of threat. Indeed, despite the fact that this is a pretty violent play there was little sense of that on stage, culminating in Coriolanus's rather unconvincing murder (he should definitely have his breastplate procurer fired immediately).

I said at the outset that I was a bit baffled by this production. What I particularly do not know is whether in its original context this was an amazing thing to do. It didn't strike me as particularly amazing (beyond some of the epic elements), but I just don't know enough about theatre in China to know. If it was then one could label this show a Unique Festival Experience (as I heard one couple suggest as they left the theatre last night). I can't, however, quite escape the thought of an alternative explanation: that this is what the Chinese Ministry of Culture was prepared to pay to send. Either way, although I was less bored than in the Wooster Group's Hamlet and there was at least more substance than in Meredith Monk's On Behalf of Nature for me this was still an indifferent evening.


EIF enthusiast said...

I think that your comments show that you have very little appreciation of what the EIF and its performances are all about. In that event, you should keep your uninformed drivel to yourself.

Tam Pollard said...

Well, personally I would say that the EIF is about bringing the best performers and performances in the world to Edinburgh (and also to showcase Scotland's world class performers), something which it does not always accomplish. I would suggest that in the more that 120 posts on this blog covering festivals since 2005 (and indirectly before that) you will find plenty of appreciation of that. Not to mention the many shows we've seen over the years that aren't covered here.

You're welcome, of course, to use the comments to provide some illumination on the point, should you wish.

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