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August 21, 2013 6:13 pm
The Beijing People’s Art Theatre, founded 1950, missed a trick at this year’s Edinburgh Festival with its climactic emphasis on Samuel Beckett: the Chinese company could have revived an early success, its version of Waiting for Godot, set at a bus stop where people await a bus that never comes. As it is, their Coriolanus has its own resonances, with its patrician ruling class both courting and despising volatile masses prone in their turn equally to street celebration and angry violence; and – with echoes of the Cultural Revolution and perhaps subsequent events – its emphasis on the rise and fall of demagogues.
Lin Zhaohua’s direction sets the action against the back wall, ladders and backstage clutter in view. A slightly raised upstage level provides a podium for rows of senators or army officers to address their dialogue out front. The production style is a mixture of in-your-face directness and economical discipline – the stave-wielding crowd wears uniform smocks; rhetorical moments find the individual actor caught in an attitude that fleetingly resembles the pose of a Victorian theatrical print or cut-out character for a toy theatre.
Two rock groups face each other from either side of the stage. The music provides an unequivocal modern commentary. Despite the bands’ names – Miserable Faith and Suffering, the latter emphasising “percussion death metal” – and advance warnings of shattering decibel levels, the sound is carefully controlled, only occasionally erupting in a heavy metal jamming session. Sometimes it scrupulously underlines the drama, notably in a soft, menacing accompaniment to the women’s pleading with Coriolanus: an ominous low rumble, as of the distant boom and wash of the sea, and the barely perceptible ticking of a clock.
Screened subtitles give a pretty good idea of Shakespeare’s text, which the cast delivers with relish. The derided citizenry seemed jollier and funnier after the interval (things usually do), the crowd’s absurdity able to turn dangerous convincingly, as it must in this, Shakespeare’s most fastidious and seriously considered study of popular fickleness. Pu Cunxin is a weathered Coriolanus, convincingly campaign-hardened, rather then the golden aristo of some interpretations. Aufidius has a sneaky habit of eclipsing the title-role (my first Coriolanus, Tyrone Guthrie’s production at Nottingham in the 1960s, was stolen by a young unknown called McKellen) and here Jing Hao’s mood-swings throughout the two men’s warfare – hostility, admiration, anger, sorrow – capture the love-hate relationship the Romans, and Shakespeare, feel towards the unyielding autocratic principle.
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