Reviewed by Alex Foott
The Autumn of Han – Red Dragonfly and Grist To The Mill
Adapted and directed by Ross Ericson
Performance date – Sat 3rd Aug 2013
There is always an awkward presence of traditional theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe. The Festival is notorious for spawning the avant-garde and unexplored and when these more classical pieces resurface, they must be handled expertly if they are to weather the deluge of modern writing. The Autumn of Han is as traditional as they come, originally written in China in the late 1200s. Ross Ericson’s adaptation makes an effort to condense the dialogue in order to appeal to our modern tastes yet it is not altogether successful. The script offers delightful outbursts of poetry but Ericson has cut a lot in order to accelerate the plot. He has also altered the performance style of the piece, dismissing the archetypal stillness and precise theatricality of traditional Chinese storytelling. Instead he has provided us with a pseudo-naturalism that is wholly inappropriate.
The story focuses on a farmer’s daughter named ZhaoJun. She arrives at the Emperor of Han’s palace and pleads with the Minister of Selection, MaoYanShou, to be presented before the ruler. Aided by Little Yellow Gate, a eunuch, she achieves her wish and the pair fall in love. However, when enemy troops threaten the Emperor’s realm, he offers ZhaoJun to them as a peace offering. Of course, the traditions this story portrays are completely abhorrent in terms of our twenty-first century standards. Elevating men above women and debasing the latter as something to be judged on beauty alone The Autumn of Han is hugely outdated. Had it been directed in accordance with traditional Chinese theatre, these anachronisms may well have been easier to swallow. The four actors are varied in their talents, with Michelle Yun providing a sweetly adenoidal soprano for the heroine ZhaoJun. Benjamin Wong is appropriately sinister as the corrupted court adviser MaoYanShou while William M Lee, playing Little Yellow Gate, fiddles nervously with his costume, rushing each scene and frequently forgetting his lines. Ashley Alymann, as the Emperor, holds the quartet together, maintaining a majestic stillness and a respect for the text.
This production is a far cry from the intentions of its authors, and is saved only by its gorgeous costumes and a brief solo on the pipa (a Chinese guitar-like instrument). There are a few instances of attempted profundity but these result in being entirely nonsensical. As well as this, the cast rustled and whispered backstage, drawing our attention from the play and making a rather unprofessional impression.