When artistic director Jonathan Mills chooses a theme to build his Edinburgh International Festival programme upon, he can't always predict how apparent it will be to an audience. A couple of years ago, for example, you could watch a production of Faust without automatically making the connection to that year's theme about superstition and the quest for enlightenment. In 2011, by contrast, the theme is impossible to avoid and, in the opening two productions of the drama programme, we encountered the idea of the Far East head on.
By selecting productions based on Shakespeare – in this case The Tempest by the Mokwha Repertory Company from Korea and King Lear by the Contemporary Legend Theatre of Taiwan – Mills was giving Edinburgh audiences an entry point to cultures that seem very different to our own. When it comes to Korean instruments, we might not know an ajaeng from a changgo, and when it comes to Peking opera, we might not appreciate the significance of one gesture over another, but we probably have a rough idea that The Tempest is about the brave new world opened up for the teenage Miranda when a band of sailors are shipwrecked on her island, and that King Lear is about an obstinate old monarch who can't tell the difference between love and flattery.
This was a good starting point, but in practice, these fascinating performances told us as much about difference as about similarity. Tae-Suk Oh's production of The Tempest was as steeped in Korean folklore as it was in our own. It was distinguished not only by the unfamiliar instruments being played in the auditorium's boxes, but also the cast of animals and underworld creatures who accompanied Miranda around the island. When the duck-headed creatures appeared, I nearly mistook them for a metaphor, like something from the eastern European avant garde, instead of what they were: a straight-forward bit of Korean tradition.
At only 90 minutes, it was not a profound interpretation of the play. Rather, it was playful and bright, the kind of thing you can imagine appealing to the groundlings in the Globe, absurdist comedy and all: "Do you want an aubergine?" asked Prospero in an attempt to pacify a distraught Miranda. Above all, this was Shakespeare on Korean terms, not the venerable man of British tradition, but something reclaimed, re-imagined and reconfigured for a different place.
The same could be said about Wu Hsing-Kuo's remarkable performance as King Lear. The actor and director was less interested in the play itself as in how it could be filtered through the techniques of Peking opera as well as how it reflected on his own life as an actor. With only him – and a phalanx of musicians – on stage, he began on the heath, somewhere around act three, for a solo interpretation of the raving king. He returned after the interval to play all the key characters in succession before a short scene of personal reflection.
It was an eccentric and in some ways indulgent approach that would have been difficult to follow for anyone unfamiliar with the original. It was also, however, a masterly performance of actorly control. A fusion of balletic kicks, athletic tumbles, operatic wails and the smallest of eye movements, it was this, rather than anything we learnt about King Lear, that held the attention. Music and lighting were equally impressive.
Surprisingly, the Fringe narrowly pipped the International Festival to the post when it came to large-scale Korean drama. Just a couple of hours before The Tempest, I saw Jasmine Gwangju, a ritualistic performance in commemoration of an uprising in the city of Gwangju in 1980 that was an early milestone on the road to democracy in South Korea.
Where a western company might have treated such a topic with vitriol and political anger, this production was full of quiet restraint. It was a prayer to the dead and a measured celebration of freedom that, even as it claimed allegiance with the revolutionaries of the Arab spring, was more interested in respecting those who had fallen than apportioning blame. Yes, there were spectacular flaming drumsticks and punkish figures kicking up a storm, but it was the sense of decorum that provided the deepest cultural insight.
If the Asian companies have had any time to spend on the Fringe, they might have been similarly impressed by the seriousness of purpose of some of the bigger British names. For stars such as Marc Almond, Simon Callow, Julian Sands and Art Malik, it would have been easy to turn up with some crowd-pleasing show and play to the gallery. In none of these cases have they done that.
Almond, of course, trades on being an outsider, but even his fans might have been surprised to see him prowling the plague-ridden streets of 17th century London in Ten Plagues, a piece of angular contemporary music theatre. Making no concessions to the Tainted Love crowd, he sings his way through Conor Mitchell's score with a steely authority and his distinctively impassioned singing voice.
Mark Ravenhill's libretto doesn't overstate the case, but this is a metaphor for the ravages of AIDS, not only in the obvious way that an epidemic kills people, but in the way it changes social behaviour and redefines relationships. Everyone is affected by a plague, he seems to say, even if only indirectly. Almond's journey through the empty orchestra pit of Stewart Laing's set is sobering and lonely – at least until the remarkable closing coup de theatre when a choir rises up from the audience as if to insist that life must still go on.
Conor Mitchell pops up again in Tuesday at Tesco's, this time providing incidental music for Simon Callow's brave performance as Pauline, a transsexual woman formerly known as Paul, whose greatest wish is to be understood by her father. If the actor had any urge to camp it up, he resists it, despite appearing in blonde wig, red blouse and knee-length skirt. Instead he opts to give a frank, plaintive performance as a woman hanging on to each small moment of hope in every desperately unpromising day. He trusts the audience to sympathise with this uncommon character and to stick with the rhythmical repetitions of Emmanuel Darley's script. In the process, he produces something subtle and tender.
Despite the headline-grabbing combination of director John Malkovich and actor Julian Sands, you'd be hard pressed to find a more austere show than A Celebration of Harold Pinter. Performing on a bare stage beneath a single spotlight, Sands spices the performance with anecdotes and quotes, but at heart, offers nothing more fancy than a poetry reading, delivered with the kind of punchy intensity you would associate with the taciturn playwright.
Also drawing the crowds to the Pleasance is Art Malik, famed for The Jewel in the Crown, who is happily matched in acting ability by his daughter Keira in Rose by playwright Hywel John. Like Tuesday at Tesco's and A Celebration of Harold Pinter, this is theatre for a mainstream audience, but in its treatment of the challenges facing first and second-generation immigrants and its sensitive handling of issues such as alcoholism and fatal illness, it couldn't be accused of taking easy options. In a festival that frequently veers toward the decadent, these high-profile performances suggest we are in serious times.
The Tempest, King's Theatre, run ended; King Lear, Royal Lyceum, run ended; Jasmine Gwangju, Venue 150 @ EICC, run ended; Ten Plauges, Traverse Theatre (Venue 15), until 28 August; Simon Callow in Tuesday at Tescos, Assembly Hall (Venue 35), until 29 August; Julian Sands in A Celebration of Harold Pinter, Pleasance (Venue 33), ends today; Rose (starring Keira and Art Malik), Pleasance (Venue 33), until 29 August.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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