Laura Clay reviews two different ‘dream’ performances at the Edinburgh Fringe: Tang and Four Dreams, and Dream of a King…
â€˜He writes from his dreams, and his dreams are woven from love.â€™
Tang Xianzu is considered by many to be the â€˜Shakespeare of the Eastâ€™, famed for his â€˜Four Dreamsâ€™ plays, and Shanghai Conservatory of Music bring his story to the Fringe in dazzling style.
Narrated by a gender-ambiguous â€˜Daydreamâ€™ who later doubles as an imperial eunuch and a â€˜star songstressâ€™, we follow Tang through different phases of his life in a â€˜play within a playâ€™ format as observed by a modern Tang reader, Xinâ€™an.
Beginning in his early twenties, we see Tang as a struggling writer supported by his wife Madam Wu; sheâ€™s a constant presence in his story, even after her death. She later becomes the inspiration for Du Li-niang in The Peony Pavilion, a woman who wastes away from lovesickness.
Arriving in the capital, Tang discovers rampant corruption as heâ€™s overlooked for imperial posts in favour of the sons of more powerful men. The strong desire for justice permeates this part of Tangâ€™s life; he publicly denounces misspent funds, resulting in his exile to the poor southern provinces. There he proves popular, championing the exploited goldmine workers and improving the regionâ€™s fortunes.
Four Dreams is performed in the Kunqu opera style, characterised by complex choreography and gestures, percussion-based accompaniment, and sumptuous traditional costumes. Excerpts from The Peony Pavilion are dotted throughout, delivered beautifully by soprano Wang Ziting. Tenor Wang Miaozhuang is also excellent as Lord Cao, the top official angered by Tangâ€™s rebellious ways. I found the story easy to follow despite being in Mandarin; the textâ€™s imagery is rich with flowers and nature, the themes of freedom and the nature of love and longing prominent.
By the time Tang is in his fifties and finding success with his works, Xinâ€™an realises the power of love can raise the dead, transcend time, and look beyond lifeâ€™s failures. This is an exquisite showcase of up-and-coming Chinese talent, and an excellent introduction to Tang Xianzu.
Tang and Four Dreams, Assembly George Square, 21-23 Aug, 12:00
â€˜And we are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong.â€™
Christopher Tajah shines in this powerful show alongside his sister, singer/songwriter Paulette.
Martin Luther King sits in a motel room, speaking to an unseen biographer about the highs and lows of his career. He waits on the phone call that will tell him the block has been lifted on an important march the next day. Instead, he receives racially abusive calls and attempts to destroy his marriage with secret FBI tapes of an affair. The audience knowing that he will be assassinated the next day lends a sombre tone to proceedings.
During the show, MLK speaks about trying to walk in his fatherâ€™s footsteps, the suffering his fellow activists endures, and his vision of a more democratic world for the oppressed. Thereâ€™s a brief nod, of course, to the famous I Have A Dream speech, but the standout moments are seeing MLK as a flawed, near-broken man. He worries about the effect his campaigning has on his familyâ€™s safety; questions whether the battle against racism can be won; if the less peaceful methods of the Black Panthers are more popular than his Gandhi-inspired methods. Yet he perseveres for the sake of his fellow man, because other protestors like Rosa Parks brought about such seismic changes from small gestures.
Tajah performs with passion and sweat-drenched energy that never fades. Heâ€™s a magnetic presence; every syllable is carefully, emphatically delivered. Paulette provides gospel-tinged musical interludes; they fit the themes of overcoming oppression and gaining empowerment well.
Delivered with astonishing vigour, Tajahâ€™s love and admiration for MLK shine through. A vital, relevant piece of theatre that deserves the UK tour the pair are working towards.
Dream of a King, theSpace Venue 45, 14:10
Laura is a fiction/creative non-fiction writer based in Edinburgh. Their work has been published by Scottish Book Trust, Monstrous Regiment and the Dangerous Women project.
Twitter: @uisgebeatha, Instagram: @lauraclayauthor