Dreaming Under the Southern Bough

stage@leedscompany mount an original adaptation of Tang Xianzu’s A Dream Under the Southern Bough. Xianzu was a playwright and he died 400 years ago, like our dear Bard. But he’s obscure and Chinese; therefore he’s the kind of under-appreciated source ripe for a Edinburgh Fringe performance. It’s now Dreaming Under A Southern Bough, though—for some reason. The production’s also muddy and passionless—for clearer reasons.

At the very least, stage@leedscompany deserve credit for what they’re adapting.

Meet Charles ‘Chunny’ Fen, the ex-soldier who’s returned from war with nothing do. He joins a hippie commune. Then he finds himself in a literal ant colony (emphasis on ‘finds himself’ because this is an existential journey he’s on as well as a weird one). How does he enter the colony? No idea, but the point is that it’s fantastical. And yes, really: he’s a man among ants. These things are alive, speak and want Chunny to help them in the ant-wars with neighbouring anthills. He’ll find ant-love, get ant-drunk and have hot ant-sex, all in 40 minutes. However, this isn’t the antic ant-tale you expect. It’s more fantasy genre fiction than myrmecology.

It’s over too quickly. I understand the source material is brief, but there aren’t nifty workarounds to centre the confusing action. It’s an effort to grasp, and that befits its dream-like stature, but this also means it’s an effort to care. stage@leedscompany is student-based but Southern Bough is written and directed by academics. Even with expert hands you can’t help but feel some context is lost. Foggy subplots, paper-thin characters and tentative staging don’t help the already baffling plot. Of more concern is the modernisation of the language, which turns the potentially potent Chinese into a bland soup of fantasy tropes. There’s courting, there’s war, and nothing’s very special about it. There are poetic insights, but they don’t cohere with the more pedestrian dialogue. Blanketing all this is Southern Bough’s least inventive facet: its direction. Primarily ‘enter, walk to spot and speak dialogue’, it’s upsettingly static for a play about warring ant colonies.

At the very least, stage@leedscompany deserve credit for what they’re adapting. Their aim for this work is consistent with fringe theatre DNA: to reveal hidden glory in the unsung world of art. It doesn’t succeed but there are decent performances, especially the princess, whom I’m struggling to find the name for since Southern Bough is really that obscure. Not a stellar piece, though if stage@leedscompany follow their exhuming instinct next year I’ll be sure to check them out. 

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The Blurb

‘You can run from everything but yourself…’ Celebrating 400 years of Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu, stage@leedscompany present the first theatrical adaptation of his seminal Dreaming Under the Southern Bough. The story of one man’s search for enlightenment in the kingdom of the ants is given a dynamic and contemporary twist. Charles ‘Chunny’ Fen is an ex-soldier, unsure about his future and haunted by the memories of his past. On an isolated Island, with his two closest friends, he embarks on a surreal journey that will literally change his life.