James Fenton - poetry of song


James Fenton uses song to structure his retelling of the ancient Chinese story The Orphan of Zhao.

Each act of the play is introduced by a new ballad, and the drama is linked together using these songs.

Originally composed in the 13th century, drawing on events which took place circa 600 BC, The Orphan of Zhao is the earliest Chinese play to appear in Europe.

Given the close relationship in Chinese history between poetry and song, it was natural that song should play an important role in our new adaptation.

James draws parallels between the songs he has written for this new adaptation and poems which appear in the Chinese text, The Book of Songs, the earliest poetic anthology in existence, which also dates back to a similar time to the events which take place in The Orphan of Zhao.

The use of song to understand drama is fundamentally linked to the history of Chinese poetry and the origins of this play itself.

Although different versions of The Orphan of Zhao exist, James explains that its origins lie in 'the lyrics for a set of arias whose music can only be guessed at.'

Using song to create this new version brings the story to life in a way that is true to its ancient roots, but updated through a new rhythm.

Writing songs was his way of identifying the tone required for his adaptation of this classic Chinese story. James wanted to convey the idea of feudal China without relying on poetic verse.

In his version of The Orphan of Zhao, song acts as the medium between the ancient and the modern, and translates the voice of a remote history and culture.

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