Interview: Lin Zhaohua on The Tragedy of Coriolanus

Director Lin Zhaohua explains to Mark Fisher how Shakespeare’s proud tyrant becomes a hero to the strains of heavy rock

HERO FOR OUR TIMES: Actors in The Tragedy Of Coriolanus are positioned at the extreme front and back of the stage, as if to emphasise the play’s political schisms

LIN Zhaohua does not look like a guy you’d expect to see checking out bands on Beijing’s heavy-metal scene. True, he’s a spritely figure for his age as he sits here in the coffee bar of the Beijing People’s Art Theatre in his denim shirt, blue jeans and moccasins, but this is a man who is heading for his 77th birthday and, with a distinguished 35-year career as a theatre director behind him, he doesn’t exactly fit the profile of a hard-rocking music fan.

But quiz him on his decision to draft in not one but two heavy metal bands for his production of The Tragedy Of Coriolanus and his eyes twinkle with mischievous delight. Was it fun trying to find them? “Do you think it would be fun?” he answers playfully, drawing on a cigarette. “You will get the answer when you see it.”

We can assume the answer is yes. It had struck him that Shakespeare’s tragedy, which is about a warring hero who falls out of favour with the people, had the driving energy of 21st-century life. It is fast, loud and turbulent, and he wanted a soundtrack to match. His first idea was to recruit some German rock bands. When that plan fell through, Lin’s designer recommended he scout around the home-grown metal scene.

Who even knew there was a home-grown metal scene? You may think of the Chinese capital in terms of the Forbidden City’s imperial exoticism or Tiananmen Square’s vast communist expanse, but the centre of modern-day Beijing is a booming metropolis of glass-fronted tower blocks and chic department stores. Today, the People’s Art Theatre, where Arthur Miller directed a breakthrough production of Death Of A Salesman in 1983, is only a few blocks away from an Apple Store and there’s a branch of KFC not far from that. It’s a place increasingly indistinguishable from the capitalist economies of the West.

That, it would appear, includes its underground music clubs. This is where Lin came across the Suffocated and the Miserable Faith. One specialises in long-haired no-nonsense metal, complete with Flying V guitars; the other is the kind of proggy outfit you can imagine supporting the Arcade Fire.

These are the bands who provide the live accompaniment to the production, which plays for two nights in the Edinburgh International Festival. Sometimes, their simple power chords punctuate the fast-moving scenes; at other points, they deliver chugging riffs to underscore the images of revolt involving a cast of 50 extras swarming across the stage in grey tunics; at other points still, they lock into a heads-down boogie to drive home the speeches of greatest intensity and violence.

It sounds like a gimmick, but there’s something in the elemental clarity of Lin’s staging that makes the presence of these bands feel unforced and organic. “I like to use the heavy metal bands to display the fierceness of the war and also the riots of the citizens,” says Lin.

With the striking positioning of actors at the extreme front and back of the stage, as if to emphasise the play’s political schisms, the production erupts to the sounds of the Suffocated and the Miserable Faith whenever it looks like a riot is about to breakout. “It’s an exciting and unusual way of performing,” says actor Pu Cunxin, who plays the lead role. “In China, we haven’t had this kind of collaboration before. It’s something powerful on stage and it parallels Shakespeare’s ideas. There is sometimes hatred and danger within society and a human voice alone is not enough to express that. Rock music is a better way to express the chaos.”

Lin is a director famed for rejecting socialist realism in the 1980s and introducing western techniques, but he refuses to describe his work as experimental. In his quest to find theatrical truth and avoid fakery, he is as likely to draw on naturalism as he is on expressionism. The actors in The Tragedy Of Coriolanus, which was rehearsed over two months, may echo western avant garde companies in their occasional use of microphones, but this is no Shakespearean deconstruction or postmodern game. Microphones are, after all, only what any modern politician would reach for to get his message out to the world.

“My own creation follows my inner desire and my inner understanding,” says Lin. “I don’t have preconceptions about what I’m going to create, I just follow my own instincts. At heart, I am quite traditional. I don’t have a concept of avant garde. I just direct productions from my interests and the needs of the play.”

Ask him about politics and he refuses to draw parallels. If his Coriolanus tells us anything about contemporary China, he won’t be the one to say so. He will only concede that Shakespeare’s “universal” appeal makes him always relevant. That’s why, as a young director, he broke with the Chinese tradition of dressing actors in wigs, false noses and obvious make-up, offering something more recognisable from daily life instead. “From my first production of Shakespeare, I told the actors to wear their daily clothes on stage. I didn’t want them to wear heavy make-up. Many of Shakespeare’s plays refer to contemporary situations and this production of Coriolanus is also quite modern because it shows the relationship between the authorities and the common citizens.”

Pu pushes the parallels further. Sitting in his dressing room as the bands do their soundcheck on stage, he says Shakespeare writes about “history, society and humanity” and, consequently, Coriolanus is a play that speaks for our own times. He plays Caius Martius (later named Coriolanus after a military victory), the aristocratic general and fearless fighter whose unwillingness to campaign for the approval of the people makes him look arrogant and aloof. His steely refusal to compromise is set against the intemperate and volatile actions of the mob.

“In today’s Egypt and today’s Arabic world they have something similar,” he says. “When there is no truth, everybody thinks they are right, everything is in chaos. At a time of chaos, people need to know what they are thinking in order to decide how to act and how to behave. When common citizens start to pursue their own interests, sometimes people are manipulated.”
Equally, however, the actor does not cast Coriolanus in the role of intemperate dictator. This leader is a different beast to Ralph Fiennes in the recent movie, who appeared as a 21st-century military commander demanding the suspension of civil liberties. By contrast, Pu plays him as a rather genial sort, a man who can’t help being a peerless warrior and is embarrassed when the people remind him of his prowess.

“Whether flawed or not, his nobility is justified because he is a great man,” he says. “When he enters into society there is a problem, but if he is by himself there is no problem at all. He has earned the right to despise others.”
He says he agrees with Coriolanus’s viewpoint, an unfashionable sentiment but one shared with his director.
“A true hero is killed by his fellow citizens,” says Lin. “The production shows the relationship between hero and common citizens.

“In ancient Rome people admired heroes and, from my point of view, Coriolanus is a hero. Those who have the truth are always lonely, always in the minority.”

MORE INFO: The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Playhouse, 20–21 August

Originally published in Scotland on Sunday