The World Through Music and Culture

Lin Zhaohua’s Coriolanus: Heavy Metal Shakespeare in China – for MTV Iggy

Director Lin Zhaohua with the actors onstage during the dress rehearsal. Photo by Niall Macaulay

Words by Maria Bakkalapulo (Twitter @mbakkalapulo)

How do you modernize and make a Shakespeare play feel even more epic? Throw in some thrashing guitars to take it up a notch. That’s what happened when China’s most popular heavy metal bands, Miserable Faith and Suffocated, provided the live soundtrack for the Beijing People’s Art Theater’s European premier of The Tragedy of Coriolanus at the spectacular Playhouse Theater, part of the annual Edinburgh International Festival.

Four thousand curious ticket holders came to see if this experiment would work. Under China’s avant-garde and often controversial director Lin Zhaohua, the pace of action was set by electric guitars and rock beats, rather than marching drums and trumpets. Pushing the boundaries, Lin used stylized heavy rock to punctuate heightened moments of conflict in the story of Coriolanus, the heroic general who joins forces with the enemy after being rejected by the “common people.”

“Throughout history, there has always been conflict between the ruling class and the people, and there always will be,” says Lin Zhaohua. “I like rock music and because I need to show the conflict between the ruling classes and the people, I felt rock music was the best to show this.” The visceral energy of metal music, and the presence of the bands onstage, rolling into the action on fully equipped risers, added significantly to the impact. And the arrogance and pomp of Coriolanus was performed brilliantly by one of China’s leading film and television actors, Pu Cunxin, whose character recalled the presence of a front man for a metal band, with the leather, but minus the long hair.

Suffocated and Miserable Faith during the dress rehearsal. Photo by Niall Macaulay

Suffocated and Miserable Faith during the dress rehearsal. Photo by Niall Macaulay

The original production in 2007 achieved much acclaim during its popular two-year run in China, and Edinburgh International Festival Director Jonathan Mills was there to see it and worked hard to bring the play to Scotland. This is not only the first performance of the Chinese version of The Tragedy of Coriolanus outside of Beijing, but the bands Miserable Faith and Suffocated have only one foreign concert between them. Suffocated’s guitarist Kou Zhengyu says “at first we felt really strange because we didn’t know so much about theatre. I started to realize Lin Zhaohua had made the right choice, because we had the music that he would need.”

At first, director Lin Zhaohua planned to recruit some metal bands from Germany, but decided on homegrown talent instead. Introduced to Suffocated and Miserable Faith by co-director and set designer Yi Liming, Lin was convinced and the bands were booked. The radical decision to incorporate these bands into a Shakespeare play is less shocking after you meet the eccentric 77-year-old director. Passing effortlessly through a press conference and dress rehearsal, it’s his confidence that has fueled his reputation for challenging the way people think about theatre in China. He has had his time with the ruling communist party, starting back during the Cultural Revolution. His career as a director was hindered by Mao Zedong, the Chairman of the Communist Party in China. Mao’s ruthless push to eradicate the Chinese people’s ability to independently express themselves still hangs over the nation. This is one reason why metal took decades to sweep the country, as it did in the West decades before.

Metal has long been germinating in China, often reflecting a defiance towards authority and expressing the teenage hormonal urge to rebel. The scene didn’t really kick off until bands such as heavy rockers Tang Dynasty and thrashers Overload ignited the scene following the bloody Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Before then, gigs only happened underground in small venues.

In the 1990‘s, there was a surge in the number of heavy metal bands in China with more music making its way from the West into the country via cassette tape sharing, metal fanzines and record labels popping up and a insatiable desire by the Chinese to express themselves.

Miserable Faith at the dress rehearsal. Photo by Niall Macaulay

Miserable Faith at the dress rehearsal. Photo by Niall Macaulay

In a sign of the times, just a week before the cast and crew made the long voyage to Scotland from China in mid-August, Metallica made their first-ever visit to China, playing two sold-out shows to 10,000 frenzied fans each night in Shanghai. After the gigs, Metallica released a shareable video of the show online with behind-the-scenes footage and a performance of Fade To Black. Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich stated in a press conference, “so we figured that if we filmed and shared the experience then maybe we could get to more of you and maybe there could be a next level relationship between Metallica and China that could last for decades.” The metal scene has come a long way, now moving with the unstoppable sharing power of the worldwide web.

Suffocated fits the heavy metal mold with their black t-shirts and long dark hair. Onstage, they play loud and fast heavy metal, with hair swinging to every guitar riff. Vocalist Liu Zheng, lead guitarist Kou Zhengyu, rhythm guitarist Wu Peng and drummer Wu Gang formed Suffocated in 1996 when they were teens. Joking that they are happy they have survived, Suffocated’s Kou Zhengyu, looks every part the metalhead, instinctually giving a double devil horn salute at the mere mention of groups like Slayer and Motörhead. Cracking a slight smile, Kou jokes “I’m happy we survived – we don’t care if Suffocated gains the support of the authorities or not.” Kou turns serious, “even when we were part of the play’s run back in 2007, we didn’t really feel we were supported by the Chinese Ministry of Culture.” Then Suffocated went to Germany to perform and got media attention. We started to feel that we were getting some support,” Kou continues, “but I am still not satisfied. There are four members in our band, only two airline tickets were funded for this trip, so we had to pay our own way.”

Miserable Faith, formed in 1999, are known as one of the foremost nu-metal bands in Beijing. “Before 2008, we were more heavy metal,” says the groups accordionist Qi Jing, “but now we have gone softer.” Beat Generation writer Jack Karouac’s classic 1951 novel On The Road about road tripping with his friends across America helped shape a generation in the U.S. and is now inspiring a new one in China—in this case, Miserable Faith. Karouac’s idea of being a free spirit and seeing the world is infused in the band’s music and becomes a big part of their message to the youth of Chinese at the growing number of festivals all over China. Even with a slower, more subdued rock sound, they, too, were surprised to be asked to perform the music for a Shakespeare play. “Of course, then we felt honored because Lin Zhaohua is such a famous director in China and we were excited,” Qi says.

 

Miserable Faith, formed in 1999, are known as one of the foremost nu-metal bands in Beijing. “Before 2008, we were more heavy metal,” says the groups accordionist Qi Jing, “but now we have gone softer.” Beat Generation writer Jack Karouac’s classic 1951 novel On The Road about road tripping with his friends across America helped shape a generation in the U.S. and is now inspiring a new one in China—in this case, Miserable Faith. Karouac’s idea of being a free spirit and seeing the world is infused in the band’s music and becomes a big part of their message to the youth of Chinese at the growing number of festivals all over China. Even with a slower, more subdued rock sound, they, too, were surprised to be asked to perform the music for a Shakespeare play. “Of course, then we felt honored because Lin Zhaohua is such a famous director in China and we were excited,” Qi says.

Metal took root over two decades ago in China despite state censorship. The recognition and sponsorship of director Lin Zhaohua’s The Tragedy of Coriolanus by the Chinese Ministry of Culture is pivotal. Even dissident artist Ai Weiwei found music as a way of protest when he grabbed a microphone, mocking Chinese authority with songs like “Dumbass” in his own heavy metal album released back in June. For China, these are milestones in what is surely an exciting journey to come for the youth of China.

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