It’s a day of firsts. 14 years in London (and most a lifetime spent as a theatre lover) and today is the first time that have crossed the threshold of Sadler’s Wells Theatre, quite possibly the premiere dance theater in London. You’d think I would have made the time by now.
And it is the first time I have seen Peking Opera live. I guess there’s nothing like starting with the best, so I am here to see Peking National Opera’s production of The Crossroads Inn and The Monkey King. Dance as an expressive art form is something I’m not sure I’ve ever engaged with or completely understood (owing partly to being born with little or no sense of rhythm), I am apprehensive and have no idea what to expect.
I need not have worried.
The show was nothing short of breathtaking.
Taking from ancient myth and adapting to modern parlance (with words like ‘dude’ and phrases like ‘how the hell’) The Crossroad Inn is a story of an exiled General Jiao Zan, played with a commanding stage presence by Liu Kuikui, who, in the changing tides of his country’s fortunes and regimes, goes very quickly from being war hero to banished prisoner on Shamen Island, escorted around by two Rozencrantz and Guildenstern-like-buffoonish guards, played with perfect comic absurdity by Wang Jue and Chen Guosen, whose comic interplay and fawning deference works to hilarious effect against the gruff general.
When Jiao Zan, intolerant of exile, and his guards, stumble upon the eponymous establishment run by a couple loyal to the seasoned military veteran, and agree to let all three guests stay for the night, acrobatic farce ensues. The piece culminates with a magnificently spellbinding display of deft, gravity-defying slapstick in which the proprietor, Liu Lihua (played by Liu Bo), and Ren Tanghui (Wang Haoqiang), The General’s personal protector who has followed him to the island to keep him from harm, soar through the stage, which serves as a darkened guest room under the premise that half he time there is not light and they are groping around to find the other combatant. The result, despite what is essentially a domestic comedy, is acrobatic spectacle on an epic scale.
The company outdo themselves in the second piece, The Monkey King, a tale much more firmly rooted in magic, myth and parable, when the Leopard (played with effortless aplomb by Zhang Zhifang), ruler of the Hongmei Mountains descends to choose a mere mortal bride amongs the village folk and marry her against her will. Fortunately for the bride and her family, the Monkey King (performed with a mischievous wink and a lithe springy quality by Ma Yanchao) just happens to be passing through with his merry band of monks on their journey west to find ancient Buddhist texts. The royal Simeon agrees to help and like so many folkloric trickster heroes, devises a plan devises a plan full of intrigue, deception and disguise that is both funny and gripping.
Never is this piece more riveting than when the two principal players are leaping, flipping and twisting through the air in joyful combat that seemed to defy all of physics. But this is predominantly due to the pure feast for the senses that the Peking National presents to us on stage. The multicolored and striped leopard looks vibrant, warm and very much the human manifestation of a wild, forest cat. The bright banana yellow and the cheeky humour imbued by the makeup and costuming of The Monkey King is ingeniously comic from his first appearance onstage and only grows funnier each time he flips or bounds back onto the boards. And Wang Luyu’s percussion is simply incredible in his ability to discomfit the ear and build tension to a crescendo in the showdown between the two, rounding off this most compelling evening in my first taste of this fast-paced, vibrant and kinetically charged art form.
I have high hopes that we will see the Peking National Group again in London very soon.
The Peking National Opera presented their productions of The Emperor and The Concubine and the double bill of The Crossroads Inn and The Monkey King on 19-20 October 2018 in Sadler’s Wells Theatre.
An Exhibition by Dallas Seitz
I grew up a child of the Cold War, as (I imagine) did most of my generation and going back for the two generations before me. I believed from as far back as I can remember with an untraceably embedded conviction that Russians and everyone near that gigantic nation were bad, bad people. That communism, and all its associated corollaries and manifestations were patently evil and tantamount to satanism (I mean, hello? RED? Can’t be a coincidence).
I believed that Emperor Reagan was our saviour and that Bubble Gum Bush was his inheritor, that our fate was a constant war against the axis of evil. I was raised – and certainly not just by my parents – to believe that we lived in a nation of privilege in diametric opposition to oppression of the starving people of Russia, that we were blessed with the great fortune to live in a nation with the greatest living standards, and the best bestest of everything.
And that it was our superlative luck to have the freedom to shoot guns as often as we wanted, watch people on our cities’ streets starve as often as we liked and to aspire to be one of the good and the great and the rich that get to eat the poor for breakfast and then go to lunch on the dreams of the middle class. USA! U! S! A!
But, as with many such myths and fairytales, ‘when I became a man, I put away childish things.’ Maybe there was always an uneasiness. Maybe there were always questions there, but I didn’t get round to really asking questions about our own pretty little cultural fairytales until adolescence and perhaps it wasn’t brought home to me until a passionate Labour History Professor and something of a mentor in university delivered a lecture in which he talked about how sick it would make a person from Northern Europe to bring them to see the fine living standard to which we are accustomed to with the great privilege of working three jobs to make ends meet and dying of utterly treatable illnesses due to a lack of universal health coverage.
I digress. Do I? It seems poignant and right at a point in our nation’s history when we are potentially about to elect a socialist or a bigoted, venture capitalist dictator who seems to only truly believe in himself that we begin to question more. Of everything. Which brings me, in my charmingly circuitous way to the current show at The IMT Gallery in Bethnal Green, The American Story by the Canadian Dallas Sietz.
A haunting series of images contemplating the after effects of The Cold War, photographed on forays into the Californian Desert, Arizona and Palm Springs, this exhibition presents us with questions about the conflict that threatened to end the world from late 1940s right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. A telephone tower disguised as a palm tree reminds one of the empty, inorganic nature of a nation infatuated with its own technological innovation. A tunnel that leads to desolate rubble strewn nothingness brings to mind Kurt Vonnegut’s descriptions of the moon-like landscape of a firebombed and devastated Dresden in Slaughterhouse 5. These photographs seem a decontextualized lament for America and the hollowness of a belief in military might and an apparently vacuous culture, seething with a kind of life and inner tumult.
We live in interesting times, in which many are trying to simplify the essence of what it is to be American and where our future lies. Seitz warmly invites us to get lost in a rich labyrinthine complexity to see things as they are.
ImageMusicText Gallery is at Unit 2/210 Cambridge Heath Road London E2 9NQ UK (nearest tube Bethnal Green). The American Story runs until 6 March.