The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan by the Shanghai Peking Opera Group is an operatic adaptation of Hamlet, and comes to Edinburgh as a part of the International Festival, and a centrepiece on the cross-cultural table. At the neo-classical pomp of the Edinburgh Festival Theatre the sense is that this to be celebrated – that the distantly new economic centres are brought to the shared stage is a mark of civilisation, both theirs and ours. That the Asian tiger, red in tooth and claw, might engage with the bard of all people, reminds us that despite all those political misunderstandings the Chinese have culture. And without wishing to bore ourselves with asking what culture might serve, we might relax into this ebullient, haute couture circus, of silks and acrobatics, as the two hours of operatic costumed larks are offered up like a nectarious feast, despite ultimately remaining somewhat unfulfilling.
The conventions of Peking Opera, or Jingju, dictate that much of the singing comes in ebullient falsetto from the males, and Fu Xiru in the male lead assails eloquent high notes with a force almost entirely from his head. Like a curiously heroic Speiltenor, the jews harp quality of the Mandarin intonation rhythmically assaults the upper registers, accompanied by the majority of the beguiling, halting music. One duet between Zi Dan and Yin Li (the Ophelia character) in particular shows how this might work to beautiful effect, when an elastic contrapuntalism threatens to become utterly exquisite, but more often, although a fascinating listen, the sonic package felt a little constricted.
The tone of the costume is set from the start, as the traditionally dourly dressed guards, now so very far from Elsinore, come out in abundant gleam. Zi Dan, wearing a fantastical headpiece of elongated feathers, which swish and curl like gymnastic ribbons with his precise head movements; all of which slightly upstages the ghost, a placid warrior figure with hints of gold armour. The Emperor with his forest of a beard, streaming from a dishlike painted face resembles a perfectly drawn anime Henry VIII, while the Queen looks like the finest lampshade imaginable, a perfectly layered kimono of such unutterable lushness the pearlescent emanations alone might feed an army of hungry azure dragons.
It perhaps interesting that The Ministry of Culture, People’s Republic of China appear on the programme, and that this is a special show for foreign audiences. Marks of cultural difference appear; here Polonius is the Prime Minister, spending the entire performance walking on his knees inside a rotund little robe – a masterly display of endurance cartilege – and the nobility of Emperor, no matter what the authenticity of his claim to the throne, is pronounced. When Polonius falls behind the Arras there is a sense that Zi Dan has slain democracy, and indeed the whole play bears a martial air, with Zi Dan in close and constant touch with his sword (the To Be speech has it round his own neck, he waggles it around Claudius when deciding to bide his time) and the courtiers all replaced with impassive wraithlike spearmen, bronzed with armour and carrying vermillion spears.
Outside a woman hands out leaflets about human rights abuses in China, so I put it in my bag next to advert laden programme. This kind of global city synergy may make, as it does here, for vast and lavish spectacle. And if Edinburgh is as Robert Louis Stevenson described “a dream in living masonry and rock”, Shakespeare might be considered the same for the imagination of this island, and his crossing boundaries will always provide some interest, if not on the glacial level of myth, then at least buoyant on cross-cultural currents.