24 August 2009

Infringement: A Midsummer Night's Dream, China-style

This post is a review of the production A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 2009.

For our second Fringe experience yesterday evening, Justin and I saw the totally trippy Beijing Film Academy production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and here is my attempt at some form of review.

Why the Film Academy production at a theater festival, you ask? The University of Edinburgh has a partnership arrangement with them. This production has been in the works for over a year, coordianated through both universities.

It is kind of hard to express what this production was like. For starters, I have to agree with the excellent review at Allthefestivals.com which points out that the production's connection to the original Shakespeare play is loose at best. Yes, there are two couples involved in a love... quadrangle, I guess. Yes, there is a separate pair of mischief-makers and their sidekick, Puck. But the couples in love are video game characters, and the fairies are human players, and the love potion of the original Midsummer Night's Dream is a computer virus. And in the grand finale, the four lovers commit a five-minute long mass homicide/suicide, only to be resurrected by a Robot Angel, a character I don't recall from Shakespeare at all...

The best part of the play was certainly the staging. The perfomance took place in McEwan Hall, which you can see here, with a platform constructed for a stage in front of the organ in the picture. I have trouble describing what they did, but with light projected onto the organ and portraits above, they created moving light backdrops for sets, including a fantasy landscape, a matrix-style image of the computer virus downloading, red double-happiness banners (associated with Chinese weddings) for a conversation between lovers, and more. They even had an animated gecko character that climbed on and through projected "holes" in the organ. At the very end of the play, the light image overlayed on the painting exactly matched the painting, but then began to move and deliver the ending lines to the audience. It looked like the Hogwarts pictures in Harry Potter - paintings in which the characters move and speak. If you're on Facebook, you can see some of those videos on their Facebook site here.

The costumes were also interesting, based on traditional Peking/Beijing Opera style costumes (you can see two small costume pictures here). Thanks to the color-coded hats, this was actually the first production of Midsummer's in which I could keep the four lovers straight (and it's my third time!). I am fairly certain that they recast the play to put each of the characters into a traditional Beijing Opera role. There are, according to my quick Wikipedia and Google checks, multiple "stock" female roles. I think Hermia was played here as the "graceful, elegant" aristocratic female type, Helena was the scrappy, sometimes comical one (you've seen that girl in martial arts movies - she makes exaggerated faces, clings, fights well, and whines a lot), and Puck was clownish, a bit bawdy, and mischievous. I would love to read a review of this production by somebody who knows more about Beijing Opera and could tell me if these ideas were correct.

When this show failed, though, it failed hard, and it failed spectacularly in the area of dialogue. I've been to China multiple times and many Chinese speak outstanding English - but those people were emphatically NOT in this production. The production mixed English dialogue with Chiense, and sometimes, I couldn't even tell which one it was supposed to be. Since the plot is a very complicated one, and their modifications to it more complicated still, not being able to understand the exposition seriously affected the play. Since they already had the stage set up for light projection, it would have been much better to perform the whole play in Chinese and run supertitles, like they do at European opera productions in the U.S. As it was, I got a headache trying to pick out one word in six in either language and construct some kind of purpose to the conversation.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder why they would run a play in two different languages? That does sound really confusing.