14 August, 2011

Preview: Peking Opera at Festival 2011

Photo: Liu Haifa
By Alice Longhurst

What do you get when you cross an Elizabethan playwright with a traditional Chinese opera troupe? This is not a joke, but one of the exciting cultural fusions set to grace this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.  EIF Director Jonathan Mills’ vision is to explore the bonds between Europe and Asia, making Shakespeare adaptations a natural choice. The programme features several cultural translations of the Bard’s works, including the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe’s lavish production which reimagines Hamlet as The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan. It’s a thrilling idea, the transformation of a dark, verbose European tragedy into a characteristically Chinese blend of acrobatics and martial arts, music, singing and graceful ritual dance, flamboyant costumes and vibrant painted faces.

Interestingly Shakespeare has only recently become well recognised in China. Nineteenth century European missionaries made his name known, but Chinese versions of his plays were not available until the early twentieth century. Cultural Revolution clamp-downs followed hot on the heels of the 1967 publication of his complete works, resulting in the book being banned. Fortunately the political climate is more relaxed today - China’s economy and population is booming, and its arts scene is developing and shifting in response, reinvigorating ancient artistry with new influences, often taken from the Western literary canon. Alongside the Bard, the choice of whom is reflected in innumerable copied Tudor buildings, popular playwrights also include Ibsen and Beckett.

Peking Opera is one of some three hundred regional types of opera, and according to Dr Ashley Thorpe, a lecturer in theatre at the University of Reading, it’s the nearest China has to a 'national drama'. Such performances have deep roots in Chinese culture; the founding of the first dramatic school, the Pear Garden, was by Emperor Ming Huang in 740 AD, although the tradition of Peking Opera came together around 250 years ago.

As a sumptuous, sophisticated art form it occupies a similar place to that of classical opera here, although actors are required to dance, sing, fight and perform acrobatics, all within the same performance. This type of opera is highly symbolic, with vivid colours of make-up and costumes denoting emotion and rank, for example yellow represents strength and is also worn by emperor characters, while red indicates courage.

In keeping with tradition, the performance at the Festival is delivered in Mandarin, and the wealth of symbolism, the accompanying music, and gestured movements both clarify the story and give audience imaginations a good workout. To make matters even clearer, English supertitles are also provided.

So what can we expect from this show? Dr Thorpe encourages audiences to anticipate something very different. In contrast with much of traditional Western drama, Peking Opera is about far more than plot. It’s a showcase for actors’ skills, and appreciation of their wide-ranging talents is a crucial part of the experience. And since visits to these shores by high calibre Chinese opera troupes occur just one or twice a decade, The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan is a rare chance for Edinburgh audiences to glimpse this uniquely Chinese art form.

The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan
Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe

Friday 19 and Saturday 20 August, 8pm, Sunday 21 August, 3pm
Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

You can also watch behind-the-scenes films from Festival 2011 on Festival backstage. Produced in partnership with Standard Life, don't miss exclusive interviews with experts, artists and performers and the chance to find out more about the inspiration behind this year's programme from those who've made it happen. Visit eif.co.uk/festivalbackstage.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs from 12 August – 4 September. Browse the programme and book online at www.eif.co.uk or call 0131 473 2000.

This article has also been published on stv.tv which features reviews, previews and features from this year’s Festival.

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