We know Shakespeare was an enlightened man of the world, but did he like to rock?
Beijing People’s Art Theatre certainly think so – the art company gave their European Premiere of The Tragedy of Coriolanus at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, featuring two of China’s leading heavy metal bands: Miserable Faith and Suffocated.
The mix of head thrashing chords with the Bard's tale of warring Rome has created a buzz in Edinburgh - the sides of buses promote the International Festival production, whilst a smile appears on the faces of festival go-ers when they talk about the upcoming ‘metal Shakespeare’ play.
From the nude fest of Calixto Bieito’s Forests, to the gritty apocalyptic world of Jamie Lloyd’s recent Macbeth, bold treatments of Shakespeare’s texts have proved capable of getting people’s attention and reaching new audiences.
So have the Beijing People’s Art Theatre created a production greater than the sum of Shakespeare and heavy metal, or is the contemporary combination a merely a quirky novelty?
Miserable Faith and Suffocated get cheers from the crowd as they thrash their shiny conditioned hair to opening riffs, grinning to the crowd.
The two bands are pulled on and off stage on bare metal platforms, creating a visual battle of the bands, representing the tension between the common people of Rome and the reigning nobility who must ultimately work for the votes of the powerful masses.
The musicians are kept discreetly tucked to the side for the majority of the show, so as not to overpower the actors, allowing the atmosphere to move easily between giddy rock concert and high-brow art.
The metal score creates punctuation for the battles and bloody politics of Coriolanus, interjecting riffs to create drama and tension. For the most part, the heavy guitar strums and drum thrashing add punch to Shakespeare’s twists and turns, but there are occasional misjudged outbursts that merely create melodrama verging on comedy, as though a pantomime baddy has walked on stage.
But the bands certainly have their share of fans in Edinburgh, as audience members snap away with long lens cameras during their interval performance.
However, when the heavy metal music is brooding and understated, it adds a powerful layer of tension, making the quirky combination a winning formula.
It is a shame that the performances on stage are not as connected to the play’s emotion as the music. Key characters often fail to interact with each other, instead facing stage front as they deliver their war speeches and declarations. It appears to be a stage filled with soliloquies.
Action appears in the form of Rome’s masses revolting against the ruling class - the common people rush on stage, sticks aloft and jeans and trainers visible underneath their costume robes, but it is hard to believe anyone is in danger of getting hurt. Rome will not be burning in this production.
Perhaps The Tragedy of Coriolanus is a show lost in translation (performed entirely in Mandarin with English subtitles), but the staging of this unusual production shows that Edinburgh is continuing to bring the UK a fresh festival experience.