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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.

China Culture Opera Monkey King Storytelling Folklore

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.

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