Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio is a collection of 500 gruesome, ghoulish and ghostly fables by Chinese writer Pu Songling, first published almost five centuries ago.
They are widely known, widely read and widely adapted in China, but this – a selection of eight stories, presented by Grid Iron – is the first time they have been seen on a British stage.
The tales, selected by co-adaptors Pauline Lockhart and Ben Harrison, are certainly strange – morbid, macabre little myths stuffed full of demons and devils, occasionally with a Scottish twist. A young man falls in love with a dead woman. An older woman is simultaneously seduced by a ghost and a fox. In the most entertaining episode, a glottal-stopping Paisley traveller begs his Chinese tutor to teach him to walk through walls.
They are performed by a company of three – Lockhart herself, Robin Khor Yong Kuan, and Luna Dai – through a somewhat haphazard combination of storytelling, puppetry, projection, meta-theatricality and martial arts. Karen Tennent’s set makes heavy use of translucent drapes, Ruth Chan’s score provides an eclectic, ethereal accompaniment, and Fergus Dunnet supplies some scruffy, lo-fi magic.
There’s something slightly school-nativity about the way the cast stumbles from story to story and costume to costume, chatting amiably in-between, but if this slightly dampens the dark power of Pu Songling’s stories, it also lends proceedings a certain knockabout charm. It’s a patchy production, but a profound literary curiosity overcomes all.