Sedately following the Fringe, the Edinburgh International Festival’s official drama opened on Saturday with a double dose of Shakespeare – with a difference. The Tempest’s opening storm (billowing white cloths) heralded a rather happy blend of Bard and Korean history-myth. The scholar king exiled by his usurping brother is the common starting point for a journey to an island full of noises, sounds and sweet airs provided by traditional instruments, a two-headed female Caliban, a feisty she-Ariel (a beaming, round-faced shaman) and animal masks that evoke, not too distantly, English pantomime.
Korea’s Mokwha Repertory Company, whose notably uncomforting Romeo and Juliet was seen at London’s Barbican in 2006, presents a Tempest at the King’s Theatre with the emphasis now on forgiveness and reconciliation. This is less Shakespeare in exotic dress than an episode of medieval Korean history, much mythologised, retold with cheerful nudges towards our most famous West Midlander, garnished with a wealth of traditional Korean dancing and comedy that seem entirely natural on the island of Prospero, here King Chilchi.
Caliban is played as Siamese twins (if the term is politically incorrect, it seems in keeping with the host of eastern cultures that form the theme of this year’s festival), one little head peeping out of the voluminous robes of its host at waist level. The two Calibans join the general liberation by being sawn apart, joyously emerging as free, separate personalities at last. The strong contingent of women is a notable feature of a predominantly youthful company, from the bouncing Ariel to a tomboyish Miranda, who one suspects is more than a match for her father. Good-humoured and energetic, a brisk, interval-less 90 minutes, the whole thing is both fun and touching.
If The Tempest clearly follows the outlines of Shakespeare’s original, a King Lear that opens with the storm scene may be said to have been deconstructed. But then the Contemporary Legend Theatre from Taipei has brought a King Lear to the Royal Lyceum that is about the King, about acting the King and about being an actor, the whole being a showcase for the style of what is still called the Peking Opera.
The performance is the brainchild of the company’s artistic director (he founded it in 1986) Wu Hsing-kuo, who holds the stage alone for the entire performance. The first act consists of Lear on the heath, with occasional comment from the actor; in the second we meet the Fool, a perfect vehicle for the conventions of Peking Opera, a treatment that also suits the other characters that Wu assumes in turn. The third act crystallises reflections on Lear into a philosophical meditation, both a showpiece for the traditional style and a reflection on how drama distils humanity.
Partly a class in theatre history, partly a hymn to the universality of dramatic art, entirely a love song to an ancient culture, the work benefits from Wu’s versatility – a former Fulbright scholar whose work ranges from the Greeks via Hong Kong cinema to Beckett – that lends a scholarly element to his display. From palsied, tremulous old man to scheming virago, he can “place” his characters with an eye to making allowances for a western audience, without ever compromising the technical demands or the form’s high stylisation. For all the austerity implied by a one-man show, lighting, music and, of course, costumes are finely, lovingly, calculated to rich effect.
Both King Lear in Mandarin and The Tempest in Korean have English surtitles. Once over the shock of the absence of Shakespeare’s language, an anglophone audience soon gets used to his spirit in both.