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Edinburgh International Festival

The bard goes multilingual

Kausalya Santhanam


The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan Photo: Eoin Carey


The vibrant music, dance and the brilliant adaptations of Shakespearean plays made the Edinburgh International Festival a stimulating event.


For those who love Shakespeare, the Edinburgh International Festival had plenty of the Bard’s works to choose from. The East meets West main festival reinforced the popularity of Shakespeare’s plays throughout the globe while the Fringe Festival too featured many plays dealing with his life and works.

From Korea came a brilliant version of ‘The Tempest’ and from China, an operatic adaptation of ‘Hamlet’. Then there was ‘King Lear’ from Taiwan, which this critic was not able to catch.

Mokwha Repertory Company’s ‘The Tempest,’ adapted and directed by Tae-Suk Oh, was a must-see production infused with a great deal of creativity. It was deeply imbued with the culture and sensibilities of the country and yet sailed smoothly with the winds of the story – of a storm that sweeps the wrong-doers to the lonely island where the scholarly, royal protagonist and his young daughter were forced to take refuge. many years ago.

The play was set in fifth century Korea. Here, Prospero’s book of magic becomes a magical fan, Caliban a monster with two heads and the spirit Ariel, a Shaman priestess made of straw who heads a group of energetic spirits.

The spirits and their doings whisk one away to a different sphere while Caliban raves and rants, raring to get at the young Miranda. She soon loses her heart to the young prince who has escaped the disaster at sea and is on the enchanted isle.

The usurpers who set Prospero adrift at the beginning get their just desserts while the young royals fall in love and celebrate their nuptials.

Miranda was miscast but Prospero came through powerfully. The spirits were arresting and so was Ariel. The Korean music, history and folklore intertwined with the magic elements of the Shakespearean ‘Tempest’ so that the experience that swept over the audience at the King’s Theatre was full blown and liberating. In all, an adaptation that was not mere transposing of locality, names and culture but a production where the sub-text came through powerfully, with the director shining a torch on the quality of forgiveness.

In Chinese

‘The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan,’ adapted from Zhu Sheng- Hao’s Chinese translation of ‘Hamlet’ was full of colour, song and spectacle. It made one believe that Hamlet could well have been Chinese, so well was it adapted from the original!

Grand embroidered costumes ablaze with dragons and exotic headwear, some amazing acrobatics (Polonius was depicted as a dwarf, the actor unwinding to his full height only when he took a bow) and the operatic music – the feminine voices thin and plaintive, the male assertive and strong – added up to wholesome entertainment.

The scenes of combat between Hamlet and Laertes forming the climax were performed to a highly appreciative audience. ‘The Revenge…’ sung in Mandarin with English supertitles introduced them to exciting Chinese musical instruments.

The production was presented by the Shangai Peking Opera troupe. Peking Opera – known also as Jingju- “was designed to be seen and heard by large crowds in open air settings often lit only by oil lamps”.

But the experience of this traditional, operatic version of a Shakespearean play was quite different from the Korean production which carried the individualistic interpretation of the director.

The Scottish Ballet’s offering at the grand Edinburgh Playhouse was a visual experience that swept viewers off their feet. It was uplifting and extraordinary.

The production was in two parts. The first was the world premiere of New Work (2011). With music by Mozart and Steve Reich, it was brilliantly choreographed by Jorma Elo, resident choreographer of the Boston Ballet. The formations were stunning.

The second was a sombre piece, created by choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, former director and principal choreographer of the Royal Ballet.

As the music of ‘Song of the Earth’ set to Mahler’s song cycle and to texts from Chinese poems of the T’ang Dynasty translated into German ushered in the mood, the two male and one female dancers in sober colours brought out the struggle between life and death. The woman was claimed alternately by the forces of life and death, and death in its ultimate triumph bringing “hope and eventual renewal.”

The mezzo soprano and the tenor with the Scottish National Orchestra led by Sian Edwards created a moving production whose effect lingered.

The Indian link

From India came the Bangalore-based Nrityagram Dance Ensemble’s ‘Sriyah’. The high voltage energy emanated by the dancers charged the entire hall of King’s Theatre. The choreography by Surupa Sen, Artistic Director of Nriyagram, was riveting. Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi was the music director assisted by Srinibas Satpathy.

The production offered obeisance to the divine female principle. It was a performance in which the various sections – Aakriti, Srimayi and Vibhakta – were braided together dynamically.

Intricate weaving of patterns, firmly held poses that brought temple sculptures to life and evocative verses including those from Gita Govinda came together to result in a performance brimming with synergy.

The homage to the Mother goddess in all her strength, power, grace, and mercy was heartfelt. Devotional aspect permeated the performance that included the Ardhanariswaram concept.

‘Sriyah’ featured dancers Surupa Sen, Bijayini Satpathy and Pavithra Reddy. The response of perhaps the average viewer of Edinburgh was expressed by my appreciative, ripe-in-years neighbour from the Highlands, who said candidly, “I love the dance but the music needs a bit of getting used to.”

The Philadelphia Orchestra led by its chief conductor Charles Dutoit treated the audience to a “programme of 20th century masterworks.” Stories and fairy tales set the mood of enchantment with Stravinsky’s composition about the nightingale whose sweet notes delighted a Chinese emperor. Ravel’s ‘Mother Goose’ suite based on fairy tales, Rachmanimov’s Symphonic dances and Ravel’s ‘La Valse’ brought the lyrical, the spirited and the sombre one after the other.

Sibelius’ ‘Finlandia’ was followed by Dutch violinist Janine Jansen’s soul-stirring Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. The final piece, Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ resounding in its strength and power brought the programme to a rousing finale.


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