21 August, 2011

Review: The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan

Photo: Liu Haifa
By Alice Longhurst

How many Shakespeare performances do you think get put on in this country every year? Far too many to count of course, but each is subtly different, ranging from stiff traditional stagings to loose contemporary interpretations. As our favourite playwright, and a keystone of our culture, he is a constantly familiar presence, like an old amiable uncle everyone talks to, but never takes the time to fully get to know and understand. This is probably our main problem with interpreting Shakespeare, we think we know him so well, and thus we do not make the effort to dig more deeply.

A possible antidote to this over-familiarity can be found when Shakespeare is translated into other cultures, resulting in a fusion of his timeless tales with striking performance traditions from other countries. The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan, a Peking Opera version of Hamlet, which closes tonight at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh is one such example. This performance provides a beautiful and unusual interpretation, combining a typically Chinese performance method with a European-based story which actually began life as a Viking folk tale.

One of the most noticeable differences about this Chinese version is how it renders Hamlet comical when in this country we usually identify the story as a tragedy. There are many humorous touches, including the dwarf prime minister who goes about on his knees, and even the final death scene which is made amusing by his odd manner of collapse. This is a clear example of how such different performances can challenge audiences to look again at their bard and appreciate new ways of understanding his work.

The production is exquisite, showcasing the distinct elements of Peking Opera. Royal characters wear heavy elaborate costumes with wonderful headdresses, and have bold painted faces which obscure their human identity. Adding further meaning to the finery is the traditional Chinese colour vocabulary; yellow is for kings and queens, while white indicates youth and is worn by Zi Dan and Yin Le, his Ophelia.

The acting itself is very formal, conforming to traditional conventions on vocal roles, graceful ritual dance, and fighting scenes. Tension is added to the action on stage by harsh percussion pieces using cymbals, wood clappers and drums, while the orchestra play typically Chinese instruments like the moon-lute, or zhongruan, and jinghu, a two-stringed fiddle which is covered with snakeskin.

Although the singing is in Mandarin, the narrative is explained by the English surtitles which cleverly convey much of the poetry of the original. Intriguingly, the use of a foreign language actually makes Hamlet more accessible. Forcing the audience to really focus on reading the translation and to pay careful attention to the happenings on stage brings a deeper understanding of both the story and the human emotions that lie behind it. The Prince of Zi Dan is at once an impeccably beautiful production by a talented opera troupe and an invitation for Western audiences to look afresh at a work they think they know so well.

The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan
Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe

Friday 19 – Sunday 21 August
Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

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

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