All it took was an e-mail to launch a week-long trip to Edinburgh, Scotland for this year’s international festival (August 12-September 4). Somehow I was the lucky recipient of an announcement for the world premiere of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle to take place at the festival, and after further investigation of the festival’s copious offerings from Asia, the internet travel searching began. (I’ll admit, escaping one of the longest heat-waves in Texas for the 65-degree temperatures in Edinburgh was another draw.)
In addition to the staging of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a novel by the acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami, the festival offered a re-telling of Hamlet as Peking opera in The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan, Eun-Me Ahn’s interpretation with her dance company of the Korean folk-tale Princess Bari, and rare performances by the Yogyakarta court gamelan from Java, Indonesia.
If there was one major disappointment, it was that the gamelan ensemble (of mostly bronze gongs, kettle gongs and xylophones) didn’t draw as sizable an audience as I would have hoped and expected. The smaller venue at the Festival’s HUB (which was filled to capacity) reminded me that the nature of the court gamelan and its music demanded an elite audience (musically elite, that is) - one that would appreciate nuance and subtlety and the meditative nature of the music. The festival organizers certainly gauged audience response appropriately, and the choice of venue did allow audience members an up-close look at the musicians and instruments, and for a few numbers, dancers. My disappointment was purely from the realization that so few were availing themselves of this rare opportunity to see and hear one of the world’s great musical traditions.
What the other productions shared (and what clearly draws the crowds) is masterful story-telling. In the case of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle at King’s Theatre, Murakami’s lengthy and cryptic narrative was expertly molded into a theatrical production by Stephen Earnhart and his team. Earnhart’s background as a film director often came through in the production’s multi-media approach, leaving one with the sense of having experienced ‘staged film.’ It is most probably this sense that allowed me to sit for two hours with no intermission with no notice of the time passed - as if sitting through a standard-length film. The production was astonishing in its ability to create the surreal and introspective nature of Murakami’s narrative as the central character (Toru Okada) tries to understand his wife’s disappearance and at the same time to offer viscerally powerful scenes that grip one’s attention and offer commentary on Toru’s quest to find her. In pre-performance commentary, Earnhart noted the collaborative nature of the production, not only combining Japanese and English language dialogue but also drawing on Bunraku puppetry and the musical expertise of Bora Yoon for the work’s live soundscape.
In contrast to Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Eun-me Ahn’s choreography at The Edinburgh Playhouse took a well-known Korean folk-tale and interpreted it in a non-linear fashion, exploring themes of gender identity and generational conflict in the process. In Princess Bari the story centers around a royal couple who are seeking a male heir and in the process produce seven daughters. Bari, the seventh daughter, is banished and sent to the ‘other realm’ as an offering to appease the powers that have so disgraced the royal family. After many years away she is then called upon to search for an elixir to heal her ailing father but not before she attempts to restore the family lineage by producing seven sons in the netherworld.
While the story with its origins in shamanistic ritual would seem to lend itself to an austere rendering, Eun-me Ahn’s interpretation is remarkably light-hearted and humorous with ‘moves’ from the dancers blending well with the rock and funk-peppered music of Young-Gyu Jang (on Western and traditional instruments including kayagum, changgo and p’iri). Most striking was the commentary on the inherent issue of the story, Bari’s and her other sister’s identity as female. One could argue that Ahn simply turns the men in her company into featureless girls by putting them in two-sided dresses, but it seems to be a more subtle commentary on what gender differences actually are. ‘Two opposing identities in each person’ works well not only through the explicit nature of the costumes, but also through Bari’s various roles as she passes between living and spiritual realms. (Further note: the polka dotted sides of the costumes from earlier production photographs were substituted with scotch plaid for Edinburgh which, of course, further complicates gender notions as men in skirts are not rare here.)
This performance was the perfect introduction to my time in Edinburgh as I left it feeling upbeat and charged from the energy of the dance and music, but also suitably intrigued by the subtlety that Ahn brought to the story and its themes.
The Revenge of Zi Dan performed by the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe at Edinburgh Festival Theatre was relatively straight-forward for someone who knows Peking opera and the story of Hamlet. What this production offered was a high-quality introduction to Peking opera through a recognizable story. The singing and musical accompaniment were of the highest calibre as were the staging, movement and sound amplification. (The latter was often a study in distortion techniques from performances I saw in China in 2005.) Hard-core fans may be disappointed in the lack of extended scenes of acrobatics, but it was a wise decision not to overuse them here in such a well-known context.
The only unfortunate distraction from the quality of Zi Dan was the translation projected as supertitles. As my neighbor noted during an intermission - ‘That’s odd. I don’t recall ‘Wow!’ from my reading of Hamlet’ - not to mention the glaring grammatical errors and awkward syntax. I could only conclude that it was the hubris that comes from cultural isolation - ‘Somehow our English version is going to be better than anything Will Shakespeare could write.’ - OR it was a desperate plea for help - ‘Yes, we know we need more open communication channels in our country in order to collaborate with you on a translation.’ (It was all the more disturbing after witnessing such a successful collaboration between American and Japanese artists that Wind-Up Bird offered.) I just hope someone has the sense to fix the supertitles before further tours of the production.
As a final note, the festival should be applauded for its high-quality programs with notes and commentary by some of the most respected scholars in their fields: Benjamin Brinner for gamelan music, Keith Howard for Korean folklore and music, Jonathan P.J. Stock for Peking Opera, and Matthew Strecher for Murakami’s literature. I would think it would be worthwhile to publish the notes along with photography from the performances as a document of this year’s offerings.