Edinburgh International Festival 2011 - The Highlights

Posted by Alexander Hay

Laurence Green samples the Edinburgh international Festival's finest, including a very Chinese take on Hamlet and The Tempest

All manner of Bardic goings on in The Revenge of Prince ZiAn exploration of the vibrant cultures of Asia can be found at this year's Edinburgh International Festival as artists from across the world gathered in the Scottish capital for three weeks of music, dance, theatre, opera and the visual arts.

The opening concert, Dus Paradies und die Peri, provided a perfect example of the orientalism then in vogue in Europe during the 19th century. With Sir Roger Norrington at the helm of the Scottish Chamber Schumann’s exotic beguilding work, this impressively performed event made a truly memorable start to this year’s festival.

The most eagerly awaited production, though, was the European premiere of The Peony Pavilion performed by The National Ballet of China with the National Ballet of China Symphony Orchestra. Based on one of the most famous tales of Chinese literature, it is a love story that takes place within a dream, ending with a wedding which becomes a kind of bizarre ritual situated somewhere between heaven and hell.

This exquisite production, complete with lavish sets and sumptuous costumes, provides a mesmerising fusion of western classical ballet, with full corps de ballet, and traditional Chinese dance. The enchanting and passionate original score by Guo Wenjing, incorporates references to Debussy’s Daphnis and Chloe, Holst’s The Planets and Prokofiev’s Seythian Suite. The dancersm, meanwhile, performed with an elegance and lightness of touch which was quite heart taking. This was truly an event to savour!

Elsewhere, Shakespeare’s The Tempest is transported back to 5th century Korea in the Mokwha Repertory Company’s dramatic re-imagining and adaptation of his final and most poetic play. Kiny Zilzi, immersed in the study of Taoist magic, leaves the care of his kingdom in the hands of King Zabi. While he is away, Zabi takes control and with the help of Zilzi’s brother, Soji, banishes him from his lands.

Inspired by a true story from the Korean Chronicles of the Three kingdoms, Tae-Suk Oh’s version of the Tempest blends extraordinary historical fact with Shakespearean fiction, infusing both with elements of traditional Korean culture and folklore. Prospero’s book of magic is transformed into a multi-coloured magical fan. Caliban becomes Ssangdua, a two-headed monster, and Ariel becomes Zeewong, a Shaman priestess made of straw and the protector and dispeller of evil spirits.

With music played on traditional Korean instruments and incorporating richly layered costumes, this imaginative and wholly original spin on the Bard’s work, fascinating explores the limitations and possibilities of human nature through the acts of betrayal, love, forgiveness and eventual reconciliation.

Mention the Fringe, meanwhile, and you would be forgiven for thinking of the Traverse Theatre, for this is where some of the most interesting new writing is to be found.

The biggest crowd puller this year has been Mark Revenhill and Conor Mitchell’s 60-minute work Ten Plagues, performed by Marc Almond. This relates one man’s journey through a city in crisis. The dead fall in the streets. As the plague pits fill, the people of London struggle to maintain a society in the face of overwhelming mortality. Based on eye-witness accounts from 1665 and drawing poetic parallels with the present AIDS epidemic, the play, told entirely through a series of songs examines humanity’s struggle with sickness and death and celebrates our capacity for survival. Certainly an evening in the theatre no one will forget!

But the best production in an ambitious programme was Lynda Radley’s magical and deeply human new play Futureproof, a co-production between the Traverse Theatre Company and the Dundee Rep Ensemble. At a time when science and religion have conspired to make freak shows shameful, Robert Riley, owner of Riley’s Odditorium, struggles to find ways to keep his company afloat- he needs to find a new tale to tell. There’s no money in the coffers and they’ve had to eat the horse. Only the mermaid act is bringing in the punters and even she’s just holding her breath. To what lengths will Riley go to save his freak family? Strikingly staged and splendidly acted this unusual play, directed by Dominic Hill, manages to blend lack humour and pathos in equal measure and certainly worthy of the Fringe First Award it received.

For me, though, the highlight of the official festival was the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe’s thrilling The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan, which is an interpretation of Hamlet unlikely copy I have ever seen. When King Bo dies suddenly his younger brother Yong Shu usurps his throne. His accomplice is the widowed Queen Jiany Rong whom he has seduced and married. So smitten is the Queen with her new husband that Jiang Rony is even, prepared to betray her own son Prince Zi Dan. When Zi Dan learns of this treachery from the ghost of his father, the scene is set for tragedy.

Director Shi Yukun has done a great job in distilling the essence of Shakespeare’s monumental work into a two hour production of both style and substance. The actors/singers’ facial expressions, gestures and postures fully convey the emotional drama of the piece. Uniquely none of the characters walk. Clad in gorgeously embroidered costumes and plumet helmets, they shimmer on stage on their knees or on tiptoe, occasionally with a backward somersault. With an orchestra playing on traditional Chinese instruments, the production provides a fascinating combination of symbolic dance, singing and mime, without losing the poetry and depth of the Bard’s great tragedy.

This superb, gripping show captures both the imagination and the heart and fully merited the special day trip I made to Edinburgh to see it!

By Laurence Green


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Alexander Hay

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