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Cultural Firsts: The Peking Opera

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Zhang Zhifang as The Leopard Antagonist in ‘The Monkey King’ 

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.

Peking Opera

Wang Haoqiang and Liu Bo in The Crossroads Inn

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.

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Ma Yanchao as The Monkey King

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.

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Defying gravity in The Monkey King

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.

Underexposed

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Great stories do not present us with anything new; they present us with what is familiar to us and then they make it unfamiliar and weird and crazy.

And fantastic.

Underexposed Theatre have come pretty close to achieving this in their recent run at The Old Red Lion in Angel, with a clutch of new plays that seek to force us to question and complicate our assumptions about, well, everybody, from the typical male sex drive to a long distance gay romance between London and Syria to the good intentions of a doctor who is judged for the strength of her convictions.

 

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Nick Skaugen and Charlotte Nice in ‘Native Tongues’ Photo from twitter @UNDEREXPOSEDthr

The evening begins with a delightful piece called Native Tongues, A Sci Fi Sex Romp, by Nick Myles, a story with a thoroughly preposterous premise of an estranged boyfriend and girlfriend with a thorny relationship meeting in a gym and being thrown in different directions in time, the corollary conceit that the former lovers can still talk to each other across millions of years. Charlotte Nice as Jen and Nick Skaugen as Oli have such a sweet and amiable chemistry on stage and genuinely push us beyond the self-centred egos and 90s sitcom cliched reasons for breaking up and into the nature of companionship and connections.

Gabrielle Curtis is as impressive as ever, penning and starring in three of the plays of the evening, all of which were delightful, one of which, Bonus of Contention, A Sexual Battle of Wills, was pure magic. Said battle pits Kara and Seb, having got together for a ‘closure chat’, against each other with Kara attempting to seduce her ex and Seb utilising all the force of his willpower and quite a lot of wit to resist the notoriously male inclination to jump at sex whenever it is presented. The air sizzles electrically with sexual tension in this confrontation and Curtis and her partner in this piece, Connor Mills, deliver scalpel sharp dialogue with contrapuntally perfect comic timing, bringing the intense chemistry between the two characters very quickly to a rolling riveting boil. Wonderful.

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Connor Mills and Gabrielle Curtis in ‘Bonus of Contention’, photo from timeout.com

Also by Nick Myles is the powerfully hard-hitting London-Damascus, A Transcontinental Gay Love Story. This is a story that both contrasts and unites what it is to be gay in both a country where homosexuality is illegal and punished with death and in a country where it is embraced and celebrated more than ever before. Sweet and funny at points, heartrenderingly moving at others, this piece is poignant without ever getting preachy and Freddie Wintrip and Reece Mahdi are magnificent as the long distance lovers.

There are points in the night that don’t work so well. Daisy Jo Lucas’ The Goblin King presents us with a potentially intriguing and contemporary problem, that maternal instincts do not come naturally and that sometimes mothers genuinely fear and even loathe the role and its implications. And I’m not against a magical realist turn, but the one that happens feels a bit clunky and undeveloped. I don’t find I care much about Daphne, the career woman and resistant mother. And there’s nothing wrong per se with throwing in a character from The Labyrinth. Danny Steele does well. Ish. But I can’t help feeling like there is too much that goes undeveloped and that perhaps this play could have done better with a Goblin Queen played by the obscenely talented and criminally under-utilised Emily Bell, who plays Daphne’s assistant Clara.

And the evening does sink when it gets too worthy. Laurence Vardaxoglou’s C’etait Ouf felt interminable and unfunny, with Sophia Flohr, likeably enough stringing out clunky metaphors and telling us things that we all do in offices that trot out the old ideas that we all climb onto the same treadmill every day and never question it. I probably didn’t get it, but I can’t have been the only one.

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Amy Quick and Nick Pearse in ‘Bones’ Photo from twitter @UNDEREXPOSEDthr

But the underplayed gem of the night was certainly Bones, a beautifully written and performed chance encounter between Dom, an affably, clumsy cliche-filled man and Clara, a card shop attendant with a past. To see the barrier of ice melt between these two characters, played with masterful timing and subtlety by Amy Quick and Nick Pearse, is a genuinely moving experience that punctures our complacent guardian-reading sensibilities and fills us with a sincere affection for these two individuals.

This collection of scenes, if you’ll permit me a tiny bit of drama in a theatre write up, captures that old familiar Kafkaism, wielding an axe on the frozen sea within our souls. They shake us. And stir us and I look forward to more challenges from Underexposed Theatre in future.

Keep informed about this fantastic company:

http://www.underexposedtheatre.com

Our Obsession with Voyeurism and Control: Game at The Almeida


Jodie McNee and Mike Noble in Game at The Almeida

Jodie McNee and Mike Noble in Game at The Almeida

One of the advantages of writing up a play for my blog is that this piece can be as long or as short as you want. Magazines dictate guidelines. 100, 450, 500 words. Here, I can keep on writing.

Or, I can be brief.

Which is a very good thing, because Game, currently on The Almeida in Islington, deserves to not be spoiled. It is a theatrical experience for which, if I told you much, I might be spoiling a little and that would be marring the whole experience I’m afraid.

Instead, I’m going to tell you these five things and hope that it entices you enough to be a part of a riveting and worthwhile theatrical experience.

1. There is a story. 

Unlike the last very experimental production I saw at The Almeida, Mr Burns, which, looking back on it now was frankly terrible, there is a narrative and there are characters for whom you feel sympathy, a very important thing for me in narrative.

2. It will make you uncomfortable. 

Don’t you love those kind of productions and hate them at the same time? Isn’t’ that what makes them worthwhile. Kafka said we should be reading the kind of writing that wounds or stabs us. Maybe the same is true for theatre because I am gladdest and fondest of the productions that make me feel the most intense passion and indignation, like Ibsen’s Ghosts, also in The Almeida, a couple years back.

Game at The Almeida

Game at The Almeida

3. It is immersive. 

No audience interaction. That would be cheesy, but you are as much a part of what’s going on as possible. And perhaps in this ultra mediated world in which every experience feels filtered, this is what we need in theatre, to tear down the fourth wall.

4. You will question your world.

Hopefully. I mean who am I to tell you what to do or to make assumptions, but this is definitely an experience that raises questions about our constant need to see everyone else’s lives and our need to use that voyeurism as a way to make ourselves feel superior. It will also force you to question your own enjoyment of it and the possible guilt you feel as a result.

5. It is frightfully clever.

Although there are points at which this feels like some of the metaphors and symbols are ever so slightly heavy handed, it errs just on the right side of intelligent. It is innovative, superbly acted, compelling theatre about surveillance, control, and the calloused way in which we as a society get off on violence, especially violence done to and among those less well off than ourselves.

Not enough yet?

It’s theatre in London. And it’s awesome.

Now, that should be enough.

Game is at The Almeida until 4 April.

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