“Consistently charming and fun to watch”
If asked for which playwright 2016 marks four hundred years in the grave, you could be forgiven for answering “William Shakespeare”, rather than Ming dynasty writer Tang Xianzu. And with Fringe Shakespeare productions soliloquizing on every street corner, it’s almost refreshing to celebrate another famous, dead bard.
Telling an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque tale of transformation, reflection and po-faced absurdity, Dreaming under the Southern Bough follows the story of a veteran soldier gone to the dogs. However, a chance encounter with retainers from the Kingdom of Ants thrusts him into a world of royal intrigue, prophecy and war.
This is a performance which hits its stride when the surreality really hits the fan. As the plot goes into full swing, it’s hard not to be charmed by the performances at play: drunken retainers, pantomimic warlords and purer-than-thou royalty make for an experience which, whilst somewhat eclectic in terms of energy, is consistently charming and fun to watch.
Even with minimalistic lighting, stage and props, the atmosphere of classical mysticism is heavy even with the seemingly lightest of touches. Incorporation of the original Chinese in particular lends this production an often enthralling sense of place and context, adding significant substance to what in other hands may have been flimsy and unconvincing. Although the scenes taking place in the “real world” seem strangely jarring and stiff, the prose and flow of the writing feels right at home as soon as things hit microscopic.
The strongest aspect of this adaptation is the original writing, and it is a significant shame that the edition presented to Edinburgh is abridged – it would have been far more gratifying to spend more time amongst the follies and twists of the Ant Kingdom, rather than the emotionally unsatisfying ersatz-grit of the modern day bookends.
Despite its flaws, Dreaming under the Southern Bough is a pleasant and entertaining way to spend a lazy mid-morning. Whilst its denizens may be ants, it’s clear they’re standing on the shoulders of giants.
Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 12 August)
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