Strange Tales

Based on the stories by Pu Songling

Adapter: Ewan Macdonald

Written & Directed by Pauline Lockhart and Ben Harrison

Our nightmares may be home to Kelpies, Redcaps and Banshees but for a different culture, who grew with the stories of Chinese writer Pu Songling, who five centuries ago wrote over five-hundred tales of demons, beasts and spirits, this is the fuel of their midnight imaginations. Join us in expanding your horizons of folklore but be careful not to stray far from the path of twilight, or these Strange Tales may claim you before the morning light.

Tying a creative meta to the narrative, as these tales are told, we come to realise that the deeper we delve into the heart of fantasy, the less likely we are to escape, enveloped, seduced by these spun tales of fox spirits, ghoulish lovers and small creatures living in our gaze. Just eight of Pu Songling’s stories are premiered for the first time on a British stage here in Edinburgh, but will any of the audience be able to sleep this evening?

Spearheading this revival, Grid Iron Theatre Company are offering more than a mere re-telling, instead, a conjuring of Songling’s creations. The stage of the Traverse is raised off the ground to intimately thrust directly into the audience. Karen Tennant’s set design offers quite enough detail to transport us to the humble settings of a storytellers canvas. Torn cloth, laden with symbols, drape into the crowds below, where one can’t help but feel a chill in tonight’s performance, despite the warmth of our hosts.

And luckily, we have three spinners of tales to safely guide us, well, we hope. Co-writing the premise, from Ewan MacDonald’s translation, Pauline Lockhart is the Scottish core of Strange Tales, bringing a rich humour, which is the most fluid of the three, though Robin Khor Yong Kuan brings a roguish charm to the antics. Performances vary, With Lockhart’s young lad from Paisley seeking the talents of ancient masters from the East a standout role, as is Luna Dai’s take on the antagonistic fortune teller. It is though, a combination of sleight of hand, magic and some finger puppets which captivates the audiences. As Khor Yong Kuan’s ‘Big Sneeze’ takes us intently out of reality and into the moment.

With a cacophony of stories, ghouls, effects and characters – it was bound to cause a tripping hazard. There’s an ounce too much, which unbalances the performance and stifles what should be a spectacular finale. In a twist to the parable, Lockhart confronts the three spirts of Paper, Clay and Light, previously shunning the warnings of delving too deep into these tales. The spirit of paper, another of Fergus Dunnet’s live effects is a strong start, but it is video design from Bright Side Studios which spellbindingly ties together the arts of modern technology and ancient storytelling.

That said, even with the power of the Light spirit, and impressive fight choreography from Philip Ho, it feels excessive in the closing act, as Pauline tosses and uses physical prowess, rather than wit or word, to evade the spirits. It seems to be acting against the general lessons, where many of the evil spirits are outwitted, only resorting to physical violence when cornered. Instead, here it feels shoehorned in, that with all the grandeur of puppets, visuals and tone, there was no way to write their way out of the scenario causing abrupt conclusions.

At its height, Strange Tales is sumptuous stage sorcery which places storytelling above all else and echoes a profound admiration for culture, narrative and theatre. This is a quintessentially traditional show for the festive period, it just so happens to be a tradition many here are unfamiliar with. Fusing a Chinese and Malaysian Chinese heritage with a Caledonian tongue, Strange Tales is a welcome addition to the world of folklore, a triumph of bracing theatre.

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub:

Photo Credit – Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Glòir @ The Usher Hall

Led by the Massed Gaelic Choirs of Scotland

Over fifty thousand individuals reportedly speak Gaelic throughout Scotland. As an indigenous language, it’s official status is not recognised by either the UK nor European Union, though thanks to the Gaelic Language (Scotland) 2005 Act it is here, to an extent. Attempts to revitalise it’s use are ongoing, one such hero in doing so was the late Iain Macleòid (John Macleod).

Within seconds though, one cannot neglect to hear the earthly beauty from Comunn nan Còisirean Gàidhig, The Association of Gaelic Choir’s Glòir. Even for those of us who have a limited (often erroneous) understanding which extends to slàinte or the naughtier words cannot deny the importance of the status the language deserves.

Of the thirty choirs, 24 or so are gathering in Edinburgh to mark their respect for John Macleod – a champion of the language. A man who did his utmost to publicise and encourage the use, research and teaching of the Gaelic language as well as it’s scriptures and songs. In a celebration of Gaelic spiritual music, this evening is hosted by Jackie Cotter as we are treated to sublime renditions to create warm memories.

As a community, the choirs are often conducted by a variety of masters and musicians, including MacLeod’s own children Màiri and Calum. Both of whom are accomplished performers being talented vocally, instrumentally and in recitation. As one would expect from often competing performers, not one puts in a weak performance. A plethora of psalms, melodies and songs lace around each other, complimenting the previous whilst flowing into the next.

Concerning is the length in time it has taken for a revised performance from the choirs, nearly thirty years (in the same venue no less). As we wish the gathering had come together under happier circumstances, there is a sense that no finer tribute could be called upon for a man who served his language so remarkably than to unite them again.

The science of music is not found only in the voice, but through accompanying instrumentals. A three-piece movement The Quiet Man is performed by Na Clàrsirean, on the Celtic harp or Clarsach. The arrangement created by Isobel Mieras enables the musicians to produce assonance which, for some is haunting. It’s the nature of music to move us, shift feelings and stir emotion. What is accomplished is to not only offer praise to the former President of An Comunn Gàidhealach but to remind the nation of the beauty of this instrument

Recognition is at the heart of the choir, but so too do they look to the future. Which looks promising with the marvellous contributions from City of Edinburgh Music School Following the first act, the remainder of the performance provides a mix of classic with contemporary pieces, most notably Soisgeul – the Gaelic gospel choir with Gareth Fuller. Their energy is remarkable, dedication to the artistry of music as they project well into the hall. It’s a livelier, upbeat tempo serving to deliver their reverence of spirituality into the 21st century.

Perplexing is the fact that we find no confusion in attending an aria performed in a different language. Many will flock in droves to the sublime works of our neighbouring creators, but we find it less investing to look north, to the cultural splendour of the west coast of Scotland.

For those who are unable to attend, it is encouraged that you tune into BBC Nan Gàidheal in a couple of weeks to listen to the recordings of the choir. Rarely is such warmth communicated onstage, an inherently different kind of community and dedication is present. Glòir is a performance which no doubt would raise a smile for the upholder of Gaelic John Macleod; agus leig e leis gu bràth.

Review originally posted for Reviews Hub:

For more information on the various Gaelic choirs, please visit: