Monkey: Journey to the West

Adapted and directed by Chen Shi-Zheng; composer Damon Albarn; visual concept, costume, design and animation by Jamie Hewlett
Manchester International Festival
Palace Theatre, Manchester

Publicity graphic

The opening performance of the inaugural Manchester International Festival at the Palace Theatre was a star-studded affair, but the photographers and TV cameras were at the front door rather than the stage door as the famous faces were in the audience and the cast are largely unknown in the UK.

Of course there are also a couple of big stars from outside the theatre world in the creative team for the show. Music is by Damon Albarn, leading member of 90s pop band Blur, animated band Gorillaz and, most recently, a nameless band with former Clash bass player Paul Simonon usually referred to by its album title The Good, The Bad and The Queen. Production and animation design is by Jamie Hewlett, designer of Gorillaz and creator of comic book hero Tank Girl.

The story of Monkey's journey to the west—the west being India—is from a Chinese classic novel that dates back to 1592, based on a real journey that happened during the Tang Dynasty and was the subject of the popular 1970s TV series Monkey. This stage version is told in nine scenes running together without an interval and is performed in Mandarin with English subtitles (not surtitles as the festival web site states, assuming that 'sur' means above and 'sub' below).

The events of the story are as bizarre as anything you will find in other mythologies, including Greek and Norse myths. The Monkey King is born from an egg that comes out of a rock, but isn't happy to find that he is mortal. He travels over five continents to find a teacher to help him achieve immortality and eventually finds a Taoist master who teaches him how to transform himself and to travel on a magic cloud. He gets his magic iron rod from the Old Dragon King in the Eastern Sea, but then fights all the gods in Heaven and wreaks havoc, forcing Buddha to step in and imprison him in his palm for five hundred years. He eventually gets out to join a pilgrimage with a handsome Buddhist monk, the lustful, greedy Pigsy, the Sand Monk and the Dragon Prince. After encountering the White Skeleton Demon, the Spider Women and the Volcano, they eventually arrive in Paradise with Buddha.

The production is certainly spectacular and visually extremely impressive. Helwett's Japanese Manga-influenced design in Gorillaz translates directly to the animated elements of the show and has quite a successful transition to real stage scenery, props and costumes, giving everything a colourful, cartoony appearance that fits perfectly with the stylised movement of the characters. His huge Buddha for the final scene fills the full width and height of the stage; it took five trucks to transport it from where it was made in Bucharest. Chinese acrobats and dancers integrate into the action as characters in the scenes, shinning up bamboo poles the height of the stage, hanging from the ceiling on strips of silk, spinning plates, contorting their bodies into painfully impressive shapes, flying all around the stage space on wires and conducting spectacular battle scenes.

Albarn's music is not traditional Western opera, nor it is Blur; he has studied Chinese opera music and integrated its sounds and forms into his compositions, so it has a continuous authentic-sounding (to these Western ears) score that fits perfectly with the style and events on stage. Occasionally the synths kick in and it does sound like some of Blur's quirkier album tracks, but this doesn't distract or jar at all in this fusion of many different artforms and cultures.

All of these elements are initially combined together effectively with acrobats performing their feats as characters integral to the action and with animation merging smoothly into live action and back again and even some wonderful scenes where live actors interact with animated sequences. This integration gradually falls away as the production progresses, so that the action stops for a dance or some circus tricks and the animation is used more as cover for scene changes. This kind of integration takes a lot of time and planning; one indicator that the creators were running out of time is that the last scene is very brief and contains hardly any of the action described for it in the programme plot summary, instead becoming more like the wedding scene at the end of a pantomime where all the characters finally come together to achieve their goals.

Technically, this is a very challenging production to mount. The animations look fantastic, sometimes completely filling the huge stage opening of the Palace and sometimes limited to small screens hanging in the air. The subtitles are less successful, as they are projected on the front of the stage just above the orchestra pit, so that whenever something appears you have to compete to crane your neck through any little gap between audience heads while everyone else is doing the same, made worse by a large number of the adult spectators having the bladders of a party of primary school children. Even without any knowledge of Mandarin, I could easily tell that the subtitles often did not fit the dialogue as they made no sense in the mouth of the person currently speaking and on at least one occasion, a few titles went past too quickly to read at the end of a scene to catch up. Fortunately the titles are not essential—in fact they are sometimes so obscure as to be difficult to interpret even in English—and trying to read them will often make you miss something more interesting on stage. The plot, as simple as it is, can be difficult to follow at times, but the summary in the programme is very useful. The sound is turned up the level of a pop concert, but the usual acoustic problems of the Palace have not been avoided, so the sound quality is often muddy and at the higher frequencies it can be quite painful.

The huge cast is all, without exception, superb. Fei Yang is cheeky, arrogant and very physical as Monkey in a role so demanding that it is shared with Yang Fukai. Xu Kejia shows Pigsy as being greedy and lustful but makes him loveable and funny as well. He Zijun is noble as Sandy, as is Yao Ningning who, in a pantomime touch, plays the handsome male monk without concealing the fact that she is not male. All of the performers create physical performances to amaze; this is not a show that you leave thinking, "I could do that".

Monkey is exactly the sort of thing that the Manchester International Festival should be about. It is bold, experimental and expensive, drawing on different cultural and artistic influences and forms and putting them together on a large scale where they will be noticed. Who would have thought that people would be fighting for tickets for a Chinese opera entirely in Mandarin in a Victorian theatre in Manchester? In many ways it still looks like a work in progress, but it is still very entertaining, visually rich and very impressive in what it does achieve. Although the cast was milking the bows on the press night, the core creative team of Albarn, Hewlett and director Chen Shi-Zheng were dragged out to join them for their own well-deserved applause.

Running until 7th July

Reviewer: David Chadderton