The play’s the thing, so they say, and over the years everyone from Oxbridge dons to third year schoolkids have furiously debated the relevance and worth of William Shakespeare’s work.
This year the Edinburgh International Festival has provided evidence, via three fascinating productions from the East: that not only do the plays continue to be relevant, but that even shorn of the beauty of the words, his themes and plots can cross cultural, linguistic and geographical boundaries still retaining their power.
The most accessible and purely enjoyable of the three productions is Korea’s Mokwha Repertory Company’s Tempest. Spiced with Korean myth alongside the original romance, and featuring a two-headed Caliban, giant ducks and a tomboyish Miranda, this is unlike any version you might have seen before.
Gone is the portentousness and staff shaking of so many stage productions, replaced with humour, warmth and a huge sense of fun. Prospero himself – here renamed King Zilzi was not the fierce sorcerer; we’re used to more of a befuddled academic blinking out of the library. Purists might baulk at this light-hearted take but Shakespeare called this piece a romance, which very specifically means something fantastical rather than a tragedy. And judging by the applause which greeted the curtain calls the audience clearly loved it.
Love wouldn’t be the first word you’d reach for in describing the reaction to Taiwanese master Wu Hsing-kuo’s take on King Lear. Admiration, astonishment – at the sheer mastery of form and action from this specialist in Jingju opera (but love or even a great deal of pleasure less so).
Although advertised as a one-man version of the plauy, there’s much more to this production. It’s an examination of the art of acting: what the actor owes to the character, how he serves the play and how much of himself he gives up, not concepts western audiences are unfamiliar with but filtered through the prescriptive form of Chinese opera. With its stylised musical rules and fixed roles it is at times a difficult watch, if at others – Wu’s take on Gloucester’s blindness, his transformation into Lear’s daughters – incredibly compelling.
Of the three productions, Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe’s The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan, although following the rules of Jingju opera even more closely than Lear, is the straightest adaptation of its Shakespearean original – in this case Hamlet. The plot remains the same and with the exception of a munchkin-like Polonius, whose acrobatic death throes prove a highlight, the tone of gloom and vengeance is retained.
The flamboyant costumes, the music and the rigid rules in terms of vocal style and performance all have the capacity to initially detach an audience from the story – certainly there are moments where people laughed – but just like with European opera once the storytelling took hold, everything fell into place (which is true not just of this production but of all three).
It’s probably the strength of Shakespeare’s themes – betrayal, love, family, honour, which are as applicable to Shanghai as they are to Stratford, that have allowed the plays to travel across time and oceans and be interpreted with almost infinite flexibility. Despite that however and despite European audiences having a multiplicity of different interpretations of the Bard’s work to choose from, these blends of East and West still show us that there are more things on Heaven and Earth – well Earth at least – that we’ve yet to unlock in these plays.