It is probably safe to assume that most Westerners aren't familiar with Pu Songling, let alone his collection of almost 500 stories, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. At least it is if the scarcity of hands raised in the audience when we were asked tonight is anything to go by. Yet, in East Asia these tales seem to hold much the same renown as those of the Brothers Grimm. Strange Tales is an adaptation for the Scottish stage of eight of these tales from Pauline Lockhart and Grid Iron's Co-Artistic Director, Ben Harrison.
Lockhart is accompanied on stage by Luna Dai and Robin Khor Yong Kuan, and the atmosphere in the theatre is similar to one you might find around a campfire. There seems to be a breeze or a chill in the air, or maybe, it's just my imagination, as the scene is set to that of a cold, snowy night. The tales and the performance are of the supernatural, of ghouls and demons, and fox spirits, and tiny people that live in your pupil. Strange is certainly an apt description for these tales. It all seems more than improbable, and yet, you're inclined to keep reason at bay.
The performance and tales are beautiful, magical and slightly terrifying. Then there are moments of humour and laughter. These I found to be of varying degrees of success. Mostly, they were moments of light-heartedness, social satire, or wit; however, as the tales keep you straddling precariously the edges of reality and absurdity, at times the laughter fell into ones of incredulity, shattering your suspended belief to that of illusion. Often, this was because it felt as though the stories were being comandeered by a Scot!
Yes, you've got that right - the tales had ghosts and goddesses in; yet, what I found to be too far a stretch for my imagination was a character from Paisley... Whilst I can appreciate this was perhaps done to make the tales more appealing, accessible or relevant to a Scottish audience; to me, these links felt more like a gaudy neon sign highlighting the similarities of these two cultures.
Maybe it's because I'm not Scottish, but nor am I East Asian. Simply put, it felt patronising and unnecessary. Though the mythology of the tales may not be ones we're familiar with, the themes of impatience, pride, foolishness, prejudice, and, of course, love are. All of these are universally understandable, regardless of whether you're from Shetland or Shanghai.
The performance overall remained cleverly done, and did more than succeed in persuading me to read Pu Songling's other 492 tales. It felt befitting to watch in the run up to Christmas, as even though it may not seem typically festive, I'd say hearing tales of morality, ghosts, magic and snow is pretty seasonal - it sure makes a nice change from watching The Muppet Christmas Carol again!
Strange Tales runs at the Traverse Theatre until 21 December 2019.