Lin Zhaohua production of Coriolanus set for 2013 Edinburgh International Festival
Lin Zhaohua arrives in Edinburgh with his take on Shakespeare's tale of heroism rejected
Although he refuses the notion that he is an avant-garde director, or that his work has any distinctive style, Lin Zhaohua is no stranger to the sort of controversy and enthusiasm that accompanies theatremakers who reject the predictable. His version of Coriolanus, performed in Mandarin with a cast of 100, including two ferocious Chinese heavy metal bands, has been exciting audiences since 2007, and represents another intriguing turn in an eclectic career.
In the 1980s, Zhaohua’s Absolute Signal inspired ‘The Little Theatre Movement’ in China – performances that exist outside of the mainstream circuit and were defined by experimentation. He has also directed classical works for The Peking Opera. Beginning his career as an actor, he has consistently demonstrated a restless energy that has encompassed a huge range of styles.
His works are consistently bracing and contain both naturalistic and more abstract visual elements. The adventurousness of his vision of Coriolanus – it is produced on a scale almost unknown in contemporary theatre’s current financial climate – is balanced by a populist energy that encouraged him to include the musicians from Chinese heavy metal bands Miserable Faith and Suffocated.
Lin Zhaohua’s interest in Western scripts is well known – he combined Chekov and Beckett in a unique take on their famous plays Three Sisters Waiting For Godot. ‘It gives me freedom to say what I would like to, outside of the Chinese theatre and tradition,’ he explains.
Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s less well-known plays – certainly compared to the ubiquity of Macbeth. Set in Republican Rome, it concerns the problems faced by a victorious military commander once he becomes involved in domestic policy. More than this, Coriolanus describes the uneasy relationship between the citizens of the state and the military that protects them. At the start of the play, Coriolanus has won a major battle. After his entry into politics, he is rejected by the populace. His disappointment, which encourages him to attempt a coup, comes from both his inflated sense of self-importance but also their denial of his authority. Zhaohua’s understanding of Coriolanus is distinctive, and he sees problems on both sides of the conflict.
‘It’s the relations between the hero and the common citizens at the heart of the play which I’m interested in,’ he admits. ‘In ancient Rome, people admired heroes. From my point of view, Coriolanus is a hero, yet is killed by his own people.’
Despite the gap in both time and political context, he also believes the play has an enduring relevance. ‘Those in power like to control people, and some common citizens can be foolish,’ he says.
By working with a translation and abandoning by necessity Shakespeare’s language, Lin Zhaohua strips back the drama to the story and characters. This allows the production to focus on the essential action, and concentrate on forging an original way of presenting Shakespeare.
‘I don’t really have much knowledge about the way Shakespeare uses English, but in order to get the audience to respond to his words, they just need to be there,’ he continues. ‘Shakespeare works in all languages and everyone knows Shakespeare.’
Yet for all the spectacle, Zhaohua is exact in his deployment of the different strands in his version of total theatre: the music, he says, ‘represents power struggle and the inability of the commoners to think for themselves’ and his familiarity with diverse approaches allows him to direct with a visceral, boisterous realism that includes both Eastern and Western styles.
Within the Edinburgh International Festival, Zhaohua’s theatre is a reminder of the intentions of the founders: introducing Scotland to an artist who has shaped his own country’s theatre, but also revealing how English language scripts maintain an influence around the world.
From a simple story, Zhaohua creates a loud, vigorous and politically ambiguous drama. If Shakespeare can become too familiar, and his plays performed in English tend towards being part of a heritage industry that values familiarity over immediacy, Zhaohua uses Coriolanus as a foundation for an emotional spectacular. In common with many international directors, who have found Shakespeare’s narratives, themes and structures to be capable of standing up without the famous poetry, Zhaohua adapts the original text to develop his own vision.
Playhouse, 473 2000, 20 & 21 Aug, 7.30pm, £10–£30.