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Coriolanus (EIF)

Pu Cunxin plays the title role in the Beijing People's Art Theatre production of Shakespeare's tragedy, at the Edinburgh Playhouse

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Context can sometimes be as useful if not more useful than clarity. As it happens, the Beijing People's Art Theatre production of this most political of Shakespeare's plays opened at the Edinburgh International Festival only a couple of days after EIF artistic director Jonathan Mills made the astounding and preposterous claim that he wanted the Festival to be a "politically neutral space for artists".

If he can explain to me how he imagines that a production of this play about a leader who disdains the proletarians and as a result is cast out of his country and ultimately destroyed – from the People's Republic of China, FFS – is politically neutral, then I shall be incredibly grateful.

As it happens, it does look an awful lot like the Beijing People's Art Theatre have done their damnedest to make the thing appear as "politically neutral" as possible. I mean, sure, the play still contains its fair share of class politics, but they're played absolutely straight here. The resultant production is actually one of the clearest I've ever seen. Caius Matthews' [sic, the programme] Coriolanus is played every bit as proud and disdainful as I've ever seen, with the advantage that without any knowledge of how the Chinese class system works means we're not watching the usual over-played Old-Etonian vowels beloved of many a British production.

But it's his distaste at the people which is really interesting in a production from the world's last remaining Communist superpower. It seems here, perhaps only because of where it's from, that the insults to the people which set him up for his fall really do reduce him as a man, to the point where we perhaps do no longer see him as heroic, and instead start to understand him as the militaristic fascist, so beloved by Hilter's Germany, with whom we cannot possibly identify. It is testament then, to Lin Zhaohua's direction, that Pu Cunxin's performance of the title role is never actually undermined as such.

In terms of production, the piece looks not unlike Declan Donnellan's Antigone at the Old Vic 15 years ago – that is to say, a large chorus in sack-cloth tunics, running around with enormous sticks. At this, Zhaohua throws two of China's leading "heavy metal" bands (one 80s thrash band, and one sort of sub-Red Hot Chili Peppers skate-metal outfit), possibly to symbolise the Romans and the Volciscans (and, no, the sheer militaristic conformity of heavy metal doesn't make a bad analogy for the armies of classical civilisations).

I should record that many of my colleagues saw this the night before me and absolutely loathed it, so I was pleasantly surprised by how watchable I found it. Whether due to tightening after transition, or just horribly low expectations, there seemed to be much that was interesting here. But most of all, however, the question that persisted throughout was how on earth Jonathan Mills thinks any art or arts festival can be politically neutral.

I came out of Coriolanus to the news that Assad's forces in Syria had nerve gassed hundreds of civilians, including children. I had been watching a production of a Shakespeare play about politics performed by actors from one of the world's foremost repressive regimes with, I assume, full state funding and the blessing of their government.

It's all political, Mr Mills.

- Andrew Haydon


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