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Chinese Shakespeare slips on a full metal jacket

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 leading lights of a fertile Beijing metal scene, but remain little-known outside of their own country. Miserable Faith 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, they released their first record, This's A Problem, in 2001, and have had another six albums since then.

"Our style is mainly about hardcore 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. But 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 fit for both bands when first selected to appear in The Tragedy Of Coriolanus back in 2008. The Edinburgh dates not only mark 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 was working in the theatre and finally selected by Mr Lin," says Qi Jing. "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 take 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, he co-opted the bands into his production "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," adds 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.

He 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 been 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 it 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 bloodbath.

Throughout the 20th 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's 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 Italian dictator 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 Wekwerth and Joachim Tenschert, and was eventually staged in 1962. As Coriolan/us, Mike Brookes and Mike Pearson's NTW production took place in a disused Ministry of Defence hangar, 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, and is also vice-chairman of the Beijing People's Art Theatre, which is the equivalent of the National Theatre of Scotland or the Royal Shakespeare Company. Like the bands he is working beside, however, Lin remains little known outside of his home country.

The Tragedy Of Coriolanus isn't Lin's first Shakespeare production. In 1989, he staged a stark production of Hamlet which 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 space 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 spectacle of The Tragedy Of Coriolanus means that only a stage as large as the one at the 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 is at Edinburgh Playhouse, August 20 and 21 at 7.30pm as part of the Edinburgh International Festival. The production is supported by the Ministry of Culture, People's Republic of China and the KT Wong Foundation.

www.eif.co.uk/coriolanus

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