Strange Tales (3 stars)

Strange Tales

credit: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Workmanlike anthology for cold dark nights

Grid Iron's presentation of an anthology of short stories from the Chinese author Pu Songling struggles on a stage that is far too large to conjure their mixture of sensuality, danger and the supernatural. An early introduction and interludes from the cast of three, which explain a little about the context of the source, and ponder appropriation in an ultimately inconclusive manner, concludes with a weak effort to suggest that the stories have a life beyond their telling.

The dramaturgy is basic: the fight scenes gesture towards martial arts action and the framing is minimal, while the production rides on the idiosyncratic narratives – which do not follow familiar, western tropes – and the energy of the ensemble. The use of puppetry, video projection and a sinister, shadowy scenography from Karen Tennent raises the storytelling, but the expanses of the stage, ignored as the action happens in tiny spaces, speak less to an oppressive, uncanny landscape, and more of a lack of imagination in using the available area.

Songling's stories are unsettling and ask wry questions both of the supernatural and human fallibility. Some have a fairy tale naivety ('Painted Skin'), while others critique spiritual laziness ('The Taoist of Lao Mountain') or prejudice ('Lotus Fragrance'). The approach of the direction, however, does not shift with the genre, aside from a sudden physical theatre interlude via an arriving goddess, which does lend a sense of divine intrusion to an otherwise mundane depiction of magical happenings. While Strange Tales offers an alternative version of the Christmas ghost story, it rarely expands the action into either the unsettling or the profound.

Traverse, Edinburgh, until Sat 21 Dec.

Strange Tales

Written in China centuries ago, Pu Songling’s Strange Tales is now adapted for stage by the acclaimed immersive theatre company Grid Iron in co-production with Traverse Theatre.

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