Worlds Apart

Over the course of the summer I have written about Shakespeare a couple of times. Today I am going to share two articles about two plays currently in production from opposite sides of the world. Firstly, Coriolanus directed by Lin Zhaohua for the People’s Art Theatre in Beijing in Mandarin and Hamlet, by The Wooster Group in New York. Both are currently on at The Edinburgh Festival.

The first is by Andrew Dixon for the Guardian, entitled

Guitar hero: Coriolanus goes rock

China’s most controversial director is bringing Shakespeare’s Coriolanus to Edinburgh – with two heavy-metal bands in tow

It’s 45 minutes to showtime at the People’s Art Theatre in Beijing. Backstage, actors in civvies are padding around, studiously avoiding the clock. Behind a dressing-room door, someone is making heavy weather of their warmup. Suddenly, the strangulated squeal of an electric guitar shakes the building, like a crack of thunder. No one bats an eyelid.

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The closest most British stagings of Shakespeare get to guitars is the occasional lute. But in China, it seems, they prefer their Bard a little gnarlier. This is The Tragedy of Coriolanus by Lin Zhaohua, routinely described as China’s most controversial theatre director. First performed in 2007, it is big in every sense: there’s a cast of more than 100, and the action takes place on a near-empty stage against a vast, blood-red brick wall.

But the real surprise is the soundtrack: two live heavy-metal bands, going under the colourful names of Miserable Faith and Suffocated, who slide in periodically from the wings and punctuate the action with frenzied surges of nu-metal. This might be the only version of Shakespeare’s tragedy – the story of a hot-headed general who goes to war against his own people – that turns it into a battle of the bands.

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The director is hiding in a cloud of cigarette smoke in the theatre cafe. Were it not for the translator hovering at his elbow, you’d mistake Lin for an elderly caretaker: a slight, somewhat caved-in figure, his jacket hanging absent-mindedly off one shoulder. But, behind neat spectacles, his dark eyes are pin-sharp. He claps me on the shoulder as I sit down; I sense I’m being sized up.

First things first: why the heavy metal? “I wanted to use rock music to display the fierceness of the war, and the rioting of the citizens,” he says. “At first I wanted bands from Germany … I listened to a lot of them, but I didn’t like their electronic sounds. So Yi Liming, my designer, showed me around different parts of Beijing. I chose two of the bands I saw.”

The music certainly adds a volcanic energy. The text has been translated into contemporary Mandarin, and here in Beijing (unlike at the Edinburgh international festival, where the show will open later this month) there are no surtitles. The scalding force of Shakespeare’s verse, though, is echoed in the roaring guitars and pulsing bass. It’s a high-voltage experience, particularly when the Roman mob, dressed in semi-druidic robes, rush onstage brandishing wooden staffs – like a cross between a scene from Star Wars and Reading festival. In the interval, the musicians entertain the crowd, a flock of teenagers pressing close, clicking away with their cameraphones.

Lin smiles. “Some dramatists and critics don’t like the idea of using rock music, and they criticise my way of doing productions.” How does he feel about that? A shrug. “I don’t care.”

Combing the city’s nightspots for musical accompaniment sounds energetic for a director now in his late 70s. But Lin has never done things by the book. After graduating from the Beijing Central Academy of Drama in 1961, he joined the People’s Art Theatre (BPAT) – China’s equivalent of the RSC – as an actor, only to find his career stymied by the Cultural Revolution. Afterwards, he joined forces with the dissident writer Gao Xingjian, who would later win the Nobel prize. A trio of plays, beginning with 1982’s Absolute Signal, all but launched experimental theatre in China, with a confrontational, often absurdist style that unnerved the communist authorities.

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In the decades since, Lin has been prolific, flitting between new drama, stylised Peking Opera and ambitious reworkings of western classics. According to Li Ruru, an academic who has written extensively on Chinese theatre, Lin is “a major voice. He’s been doing experimental theatre for more than 30 years, at the absolute vanguard of Chinese spoken drama.” But his approach hasn’t always done him favours: one critic described him and Gao as “harbingers of strangeness” for their efforts to release drama from the straitjacket of Soviet-era social realism. The director refuses even this pigeonholing: “I have no style,” he has repeatedly told interviewers.

Anyone expecting peony-strewn chinoiserie – like that offered by the National Ballet of China two festivals ago – will be in for a shock. This is a Coriolanus of muscular clashes and brutal comedowns; of a leader always itching to administer the hair-dryer treatment, and who does nothing to disguise his detestation of the masses.

In the lead role is one of China’s most famous stage actors, Pu Cunxin: a disconcertingly polite figure who apologies for his sore throat – the consequence of competing with two metal groups. “It is an unusual way of performing,” he admits. “We don’t normally have this kind of collaboration in China. The noise is just so powerful on stage, but we need the rock music to express these emotions. It parallels Shakespeare’s ideas.”

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I’m struck by one moment in particular, where Coriolanus’s arch-rival Aufidius grabs a microphone during a battle scene, looking half like a wannabe rock god, half like a politician channelling the energy of the crowd. Politics are everywhere in Coriolanus: the play has been claimed both by leftwing critics as a primer on the dangers of demagoguery, and by the right as a lesson in the fickleness of the masses (the Roman citizens at first swoon over their apparently invincible general, then later turn on him). Given these paradoxes, it feels an oddly appropriate play for present-day China, a country nominally communist, but with an economy many capitalists would trade their copies of Milton Friedman for. On the short walk from my hotel to the theatre, two blocks from the Forbidden City, I drift through a shopping district crammed with western luxury brands; one window of a photography shop is jewelled with glittering Japanese cameras, the other with portraits of Mao and Deng Xiaoping. It would be harder to find a clearer image of Deng’s infamous”socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

What does Lin see in Shakespeare’s text? “The relations between the hero and the common citizens,” he replies. “In ancient Rome, people admired heroes. From my point of view, Coriolanus is a hero.” Is there a resonance with contemporary China? “It’s a good phenomenon if the play refers to current events. Those in power like to control citizens, and some common citizens are foolish.”

I want to find out about a previous Shakespeare production, Lin’s Beckettian staging of Hamlet, first seen in 1989. Performed in a rehearsal room at BPAT, the only prop a barber’s chair, it had three actors (one of them Pu) sharing the roles of Hamlet, Claudius and Polonius. Depending on your perspective, it captured either capitalist alienation, or the disillusion that followed the collapse of the student protests at Tiananmen Square. The parallels were cloudy – theatrical censorship is vigorously alive in the People’s Republic – but there to be seen.

Lin freely admits the show was unusual: in contrast to the traditional Chinese way of presenting Shakespeare, with wigs and western-style makeup (sometimes even prosthetic noses), his actors wore their own clothes, in a conscious decision to show the student prince as just another guy. But he is reluctant to open up on the wider issues. “I hate politics,” he says stoutly. “Hamlet has nothing to do with politics. It’s just about a person’s situation.” I can’t tell whether he’s genuinely uninterested, or unwilling to be frank with a British journalist. “I never discuss politics. I don’t think you can direct a production just from politics.” He isn’t even convinced, he says, he’s avant-garde. “I don’t have that concept. I just direct the production from my interests and from the needs of the play.”

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Our time is nearly up; his lighter is snapping impatiently. Last question: does he like being called a rebel? “I don’t have preconceptions about what I’m going to create,” he stonewalls. “I just follow my instincts.”

I realise as I’m rushed out that I’ve forgotten to ask one thing – why direct Shakespeare in the first place? Why stage reach for a playwright four centuries old? When I email, the answer comes back quicker than I expect. It reads: “It gives me the freedom to say what I want.”

537273_582437285116480_15271441_nInterestingly, the Lin Zhaohua Theatre Studio has it’s own Facebook page which is where all the above images came from.

There is a fantastic outline of him and his work here where he is described as a very controversial drama director in China…one of the most significant figures in Chinese drama history you can’t ignore – whether you love him or not.

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The second article today is also from the Guardian, by Hermione Hoby, exploring with the Wooster Group why, after all these years of experimental theatre, they decided to ‘do’ Shakespeare.

Wooster Group take on Shakespeare with Hamlet remix

Before Punchdrunk, or Complicite, or Forced Entertainment, or any other experimental theatre company you can name, there was New York’s Wooster Group, an avant-garde ensemble legendary not just for the work it has made since the 1970s, but also for the love affairs and betrayals that have coloured its history. As former member Willem Dafoe has put it: “You become accomplices in life. There’s a terrific power in that. The other side is, there’s no place to run.”

Since 1974 the company has worked out of the Performing Garage in Soho – a Manhattan neighbourhood once characterised by derelict lofts and heroin dealers and now given over to Prada boutiques and cupcake-centric cafes. This year they’re bringing one of their most successful shows ever – a remixed Hamlet devised from a filmed 1964 production starring Richard Burton – to the Edinburgh international festival.

I meet company members Scott Shepherd and Kate Valk in the big empty black box of their theatre and, seated on the steps of the auditorium, Shepherd explains that he directed the play years ago as a student at Brown University. Ever since, he says, he’s had it stuck in his head. That’s not, it turns out, a figure of speech. “He has a photographic memory,” Valk explains, mock-wearily. “It’s kind of obnoxious at times.”

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The skill is what enabled him, for example, to memorise all 49,000 words of The Great Gatsby for Elevator Repair Service’s acclaimed stage adaptation, Gatz. Hamlet though, was rooted even deeper. Eventually, with speeches still running through his head, it began to feel “like something that needed to be exorcised”.

And so he persuaded Valk, who claims to have suffered from what she calls “Shakespeare deficit disorder”, to join him in after-hours work on the text. From that moment in 2006, very slowly, their production began to take shape.

It began with the two of them, but the woman who continues to hold the company together – the matriarch, you might say – is the quietly formidable 69-year-old Elizabeth LeCompte. The Wooster Group emerged amid the creative ferment of 70s downtown New York, but it was her relationship with Spalding Gray, the late actor and writer, that dynamised the company. After graduating from Skidmore College she got together with Gray – as well as Valk, Jim Clayburgh, Ron Vawter, Peyton Smith and Dafoe – with whom she went on to have a son and a 27-year relationship. Dafoe ended it abruptly in 2004, the same year Gray took his own life by throwing himself from the Staten Island ferry. Miraculously, she weathered it with the company intact.

Before she met Gray in the mid 60s, LeCompte had little interest in theatre and had studied art, thinking she might become an architect like her father. “I think maybe,” she says, “it was just a mistake – I got together with Spalding not because I thought I was going to get involved with theatre but when Richard Schechner [the group’s original artistic director] hired me, I realised that it was really a good place.”

By 1975 she was staging Gray’s famous Rhode Island Trilogy, an autobiographical work that details his childhood and the suicide of his mother through monologue as well as personal materials such as letters and photographs. In 1980, Schechner left, LeCompte became artistic director and they changed their name from the Performing Group to the Wooster Group. What drove them then, I ask. She inhales. “It’s hard to know … I don’t know whether it was just youth, because it wasn’t exactly idealism. We weren’t afraid of anybody. We had a certain kind of feeling of the world was ours, so we could do what we wanted.”

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The company seems to retain that sense of boundlessness, I suggest.

“You really don’t really know where you’re going to end up when you start,” she agrees. “And there’s something very exhilarating about that, but it’s also very difficult. In most theatres the director has to know what’s there so the other people involved can rely on her. I don’t afford anyone that comfort. I’m as confused as everybody else a lot of the time.”

When LeCompte began working on Hamlet, “I didn’t really think I was working on Shakespeare, I thought I was working out on figuring outabout Shakespeare. I kind of came in a side door.” That’s often the best way. “Well,” she says drily, “it’s the only way I can do most things.”

She remembered seeing the Burton production, which was directed by John Gielgud – himself a famous Hamlet – and thinking of it as experimental purely because the actor playing Gertrude wore not a bodiced dress and ruff, but a mink coat. “That’s what experimental was then!” she laughs. More exciting though was Burton’s futuristically named “Electronovision”, an innovation that used 17 cameras to film and broadcast the performance for two days in 1,000 cinemas across the US . In the Wooster production, that grainy 1964 film is projected above the set, forming a ghostly backdrop of a past Hamlet. The New York Times described the Woosters’ show as “an aching tribute to the ephemerality of greatness in theatre”.

Kate Valk and Ari Fliakos in Hamlet

Kate Valk and Ari Fliakos in Hamlet

“The whole metaphor to using the film is the ghost,” Kate Valk enthuses. “The ghost of all those performances!”

Scott Shepherd is a performer who invariably attracts adjectives like “indefatigable” and “tireless”; those seem entirely deserved when it emerges that he edited the entire Burton film into Shakespearean meter, in other words, painstakingly cutting the performers’ pauses so that the iambic pentameter is duly honoured with beats and stresses in the right places.

“This was an arduous task, yeah,” he admits. “To go in and cut pauses if they came in the middle of a verse line and then move them to the end of the verse line.”

It’s Shepherd-as-Hamlet’s imagination, so the premise goes, that creates the onstage action, in which live performers mirror the movements and speech of the actors in the 1964 projection. For all the visual innovations though, LeCompte insists that the text itself remains sacrosanct, and, “on a par with the visual”.

She says: “What I was doing, I realised, was trying to take this shard of what I could get from the past, from that production, and to reinterpolate it into something that made sense to me, in the future.” A brief pause, then: “But I just wanted to delight myself, frankly!”

Despite three decades of making work this is the first Shakespeare the company has ever done. (They’ve since added Troilus and Cressida, a collaboration with the RSC, to their repertoire.)

“I was not hip to the Shakespeare idea at all,” says Ari Fliakos, who plays Claudius and Marcellus, among other roles. Why? “I don’t know,” he says, “maybe it comes out of my allergy to theatre.”

Professing not to be a “theatre person” seems to be a common Wooster trait. Even Valk, who’s been described as “the Meryl Streep of downtown”, has claimed that acting is not among her skills.

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When I mention this tendency to LeCompte she laughs. “I like theatre people!” she protests. “But the process of making theatre in the commercial world I don’t like because it’s too formulaic. I really like to ramble for quite a while,” – and then she corrects herself: “I don’t like to, I have to. I wish I was faster, frankly – we’d be making a little more money.”

Like most members, LeCompte included, Fliakos came to the group through a side door, after hanging around there in 1996, answering phones and fetching coffee. “Everything was stimulating, everything resonated,” he recalls. “It seemed like experimenting with drugs all over again, it was a whole new experience I wouldn’t have expected in any kind of live performance.” He sighs: “The minute you try to describe it, not unlike a trip, it begins to dissipate.”

Every member I talk to about the Wooster Group speaks with this kind of ecstatic devotion. Nonetheless, the creative world of 2013 is a very different one to 1974 – financially and ideologically. LeCompte admits that, “in order to be able to keep the company together I have to be more aware of money, ways of living and ideas. It’s the terrible thing that it’s not hip anymore to not have money, or to be on the outside. It’s much harder for people to give up things that have money and status.”

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But there are gains, Shepherd explains: “Most people who are in acting are going from one job to the next, and it’s quite hard to develop a sense of continuity, that you’re engaged in building a body of work. And here that’s all you do. One piece bleeds into the other so you’re creating sort of an oeuvre and making something larger than a particular production, you know? This is about developing a philosophy of working, a way of working with a group of people.”

“It feels,” he says finally, “substantial.”

Again the reviews will be out soon for both shows so it will be interesting to see what the critics make of these two very different, culturally and artistically diverse reworkings of Shakespeare. However, according to one critic who Tweeted a few hours ago, the opening night of Hamlet didn’t go well:

domIt happens to the best of us, it seems.

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