It’s only because we’ve heard them told since we were children that the tales collected by Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers don’t seem utterly bizarre. Imagine coming to The Little Mermaid for the very first time as an adult without any of the necessary cultural context to situate a story about a half girl-half fish who wishes away her famously enchanting voice to obtain human form to be with the man she loves only to be spurred by him and ultimately transformed into an ethereal spirit who may one day earn herself a soul, 300 years of good deeds permitting. Actually, that is rather odd. #curseofthedisneyrewrite
Making the unfamiliar familiar is the herculean task undertaken by Edinburgh-based company Grid Iron in bringing Strange Tales, a small selection of Pu Songling’s classical Chinese stories, to the stage. Before his death in 1715, Pu Songling had written almost 500 short stories although they were only published posthumously, in mid-eighteenth-century China. Although many of the tales as presented here conclude with a moral coda, not dissimilar to a Biblical story or an Aesop fable, they also incorporate supernatural or mythical elements more familiar to the world of ghost and hero stories: demons, goddesses, fortune tellers, ghosts and, perhaps less familiar to a Western audience, fox spirits.
In a witty new translation by academic Ewan Macdonald, three storytellers unite on stage to bring eight of Pu Songling’s strange tales to life. Emphasising their different cultural backgrounds—one Chinese, one Malaysian Chinese, one Scottish—the storytellers immediately establish that although Pu’s tales come from China, they don’t belong to any one culture and can be shared and enjoyed by anyone.
Despite the grisly, bizarre quality of many of the stories—a man’s heart is ripped out by a demon in one, a ghost and a fox spirit nearly kill a mortal woman in another after having too much sex with her—the production makes magic happen by giving equal weight to their sillier aspects. The sex scenes between Sara, the mortal woman, and her fox spirit and ghost lovers in ‘Lotus Fragrance’ are worked around a simple and hugely amusing shorthand involving a big red bedsheet and a nice bit of physical comedy. Throughout the eight tales, the three storytellers move effortlessly across different modes: there’s pantomime overacting, naturalistic conversation, Shakespearean declamation, not to mention martial arts and physical comedy.
In so doing, what could have been a Halloween-esque creepfest (not that there would have been anything wrong with that!) conveys instead wonderful warmth and conviviality. Surprisingly, it feels very festive. The feeling of warmth is well-served by one of many smart staging decisions, that of raising the stage so that the storytellers are almost level with the audience. When they sit cross-legged on the ground to talk to us, it’s as if we’re sitting next to them listening to the tales rather than watching them unfold from a distance.
Sadly, translated works comprise only a tiny minority of theatre productions in the UK (3.8% of all plays in the UK in 2013 were translations, and 2.2% of all performances according to the British Theatre Repertoire 2013). Translations of traditional stories and beloved works from other cultures have so much to offer—they open our eyes to other ways of thinking about ourselves, our relationships with others and the world we live in. They also help us to realise that our own familiar stories are deeply situated and deeply strange when viewed through others’ eyes. Would that there was more support from British theatres and theatre producers for bringing new translations to stage, and would that they were all as beautifully conceived and executed as these Strange Tales.
Strange Tales runs at the Traverse Theatre until 21st December. More info here.