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The Tragedy of Coriolanus - Death Metal Shakespeare

Shakespeare and Death Metal aren't the most obvious of theatrical 
bed-fellows, especially when performed in Mandarin. Yet this is exactly 
the culture clash that ensues in Beijing People's Art Theatre's epic 
production of The Tragedy of Coriolanus, which opens as part of 
Edinburgh International Festival's drama programme next week. In a 
production which features some 100 bodies on a near-bare stage, veteran 
Chinese iconoclast Lin Zhaohua's version of Shakespeare's political 
tragedy makes the conflict between nations a noisy affair by having two 
of China's leading metal bands onstage.

Miserable Faith and Suffocated  are stalwarts and leading lights of a 
fertile Beijing metal scene, but remain little-known outside of their 
own country. Miserable Faith were formed in 1999, and by 2001 were 
regarded by many as the best nu-metal band in Beijing. Consisting of 
vocalist Gao Hu, guitarists Song Jie and Tian Ran, bass player Zhang 
Jing, harmonica player Qi Jing and drummer Chi Gongwei, aka Dawei, 
released their first record, This's A Problem, in 2001, and have 
released six albums since then.

“Our music style is mainly about hard core rap.,” female harmonica 
player Qi Jing explains. “Since 2008, our music has become gentler as 
we need some different ways of expression.”

Despite their nihilistic-sounding name, Miserable Faith draw 
inspiration from literature, and are particularly attracted to the 
roving spirit of Beat novelist Jack Kerouac.

“On the road is the core spirit of our band,” Qi Jing says of Kerouac's 
seminal and most widely read novel. “We are always encouraging young 
people to travel around the world. Miserable Faith is now one of the 
most famous underground rock bands in China. We are invited to many 
music festivals every year.”

Suffocated have been around even longer than Miserable Faith, forming 
in 1996 around an axis of vocalist Liu Zheng, lead guitarist Kou 
Zhengyu, rhythm guitarist Wu Peng and drummer Wu Gang. Both the drummer 
and bassist previously played in another metal outfit, Regicide. 
Despite their longevity, Suffocated didn't release a record until 2007.

Since then, both bands have become peers, frequently sharing live bills 
together. It was a natural fir for both bands when first selected to 
appear in The Tragedy of Coriolanus back in 2008. The Edinburgh dates 
not only marks the production's European premiere, but should give 
Miserable Faith and Suffocated some of the widest exposure they've 
received outside China to date.

“We were firstly recommended by someone who working in the theatre and 
finally selected by Mr. Lin,” says Qi Jing, Miserable Faith's female 
harmonica player. “This is our first time getting involved in theatre. 
We are in charge of most of the sound effects and music onstage. When 
we got involved in this play the first time in 2008, we felt really 
excited by it all. Everything about it was fresh to us. This time 
round, five years later, we prefer to a more personal approach to the 
play. Before our involvement, we knew very little about theatre and Mr. 
Lin. We were worried about  how the chemistry between us might work, 
but when we finally found Mr. Lin and [the lead actor in The Tragedy of 
Coriolanus] Mr. Pu Cunxin very kind and easy-going, and we felt pretty 
relaxed, because their respect for rock n’ roll makes us passionate.”

As far as Lin was concerned, co-opting the bands into his production 
was “In order to represent prominently the conflicting sides. I don’t 
really know much about the rock scene. After watching some bands play 
live, Mr Yi Liming (co-director, lighting and set designer) chose these 
two.”

Given that both Shakespeare and metal music are particularly rare 
beasts in China, The Tragedy of Coriolanus was something of a 
double-barrelled novelty for both audiences and actors alike.

“Theatre actors are really curious about working with rock bands,” 
according to Qi Jing. “Putting two rock bands together on stage makes 
their acts more powerful.”

As a director, Lin Zhaohua has always done things his own way. Lin 
graduated from the Beijing Central Academy of Drama in 1961, and joined 
the Beijing People's Art Theatre as an actor, before finding his career 
stalled by the Cultural Revolution. Lin later teamed up with dissident 
writer and Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian for a trio of plays that 
began in  1982 with Absolute Signal. This marked the dawn of 
experimental theatre in China with Lin's trademark mix of 
confrontationalism and absurdism. Now in his late 70s, Lin refuses to 
be pigeon-holed by any particular style, and has never been shy of 
provoking his country's Communist authorities.

Coriolanus is based on the life of Roman leader Caius Marcius 
Coriolanus, and tells the story of the rise and fall of a brilliant 
Roman general who, having conquered the city of Corioles and hailed as 
a hero, is persuaded to run for Consul. When he is rejected by the 
people, however, Coriolanus vows to destroy Rome, and joins forces with 
his enemies to mount an attack.

The play's themes of popular discontent with government are dangerously 
contemporary, and was briefly banned in France in the 1930s because of 
what was seen as fascistic elements in the text. In
Communist China, one suspects the resonances of the play become 
explicit. Lin, however, has claimed not to be interested in politics or 
applying any particular agenda to his production. Although thought to 
have been written by Shakespeare some time around 1608, Coriolanus  
wasn't performed until after the Restoration in 1682. This was in a 
production by Nahum Tate, who rendered the play's final act as a 
blood-bath.

Throughout the twentieth century, a stream of charismatic actors  took 
on the play's title role. Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton, Paul 
Scofield and Ian McKellan have all played Coriolanus, as have 
Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman and Ralph Fiennes. One of the most 
celebrated performances in the play came from Laurence Olivier, who 
played Coriolanus twice, first in 1937, then again in 1959. In the 
latter production, Olivier famously performed Coriolanus' death scene 
by falling backwards from a high platform and being suspended upside 
down without the aid of wires. This remarkable image recalled the death 
of Mussolini.

More recently, in 2012, National Theatre Wales melded Shakespeare's 
play with Coriolan, Bertolt Brecht's unfinished adaptation, in which he 
aimed to make the play a tragedy of the workers rather than the 
individual. The play was only completed after Brecht's death in 1956 by 
Manfred Wekworth and Joachim Tenschert, and was eventually staged in 
1962.

As Coriolan/us, Mike Brooks and Mike Pearson's NTW production took 
place in a disused Ministry of Defence hanger, where the audience wore 
Silent Disco style headphones so the actors words could be heard as the 
action promenaded through the space.

In Lin's production, Pu Cunxin plays Coriolanus. Pu is a household name 
in China for his leading roles on film and television, sand is also 
Vice Chair of the Beijing People's Art Theatre, which is the  
equivalent of the National Theatre of Scotland or the Royal Shakespeare 
Company. As with  the bands he is working besides, however, he remains 
little known outside of his home country.

The Tragedy of Coriolanus isn't Lin's first Shakespeare production. In 
1989, Lin staged a stark production of Hamlet which pretty much ripped 
up the rule book of how to approach Shakespeare. Staged in a rehearsal 
room of the Beijing People's Art Theatre, Lin's production featured 
three performers, including Pu, dressed in their own clothes and 
performing in a room bare except for a barber's chair. By all accounts 
Lin's Hamlet more resembled something by Samuel Beckett than 
Shakespeare.

In stark contrast, the sheer scale of The Tragedy of Coriolanus means 
that only a stage as large as Edinburgh Playhouse can accommodate it. 
It was never Lin's intention, however, for his production to be on such 
a grand scale.

“I didn’t set out to make it epic,” he says, “but that’s how it turned 
out!”

For Miserable Faith and Suffocated, the experience of working on the 
production has given them an artistic credibility which has left their 
underground reputations untarnished. Not that they seem overly fussed 
about where they fit in with the rest of the Chinese music scene.

“To be honest, we don’t actually care about it,” Qi says. “We only hope 
that Chinese rock music
can  go far beyond Chinese football.”

The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Edinburgh Playhouse, August 20th-21st, 
7.30pm.
www.eif.co.uk/coriolanus

The Herald, August 17th 2013

ends

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