Farewell My Concubine
Chinese National Peking Opera Company
Echo Arena, Liverpool
Usually, it’s the critic’s job to have some knowledge, wisdom, and insight to share with his or her reader. We’re meant to know a little more than the average audience member—that’s why we get employed. Tonight at the Echo Arena, however, all this has to be set aside.
I cannot say if this is an outstanding production of Farewell My Concubine. I do not understand the underlying aesthetic of this art form, neither do I have other experiences against which to gauge it. I am reduced (if this is right the word) to telling you what I see, what I hear and what I feel. Perhaps not such a bad thing, when all’s said and done.
Farewell My Concubine is the opera which formed the backdrop for Chen Kaige’s 1993 film of the same name (which was itself adapted from Lilian Lee’s book). The plot is simple, yet powerful. Two overlords, Xiang Yu and Liu Bang, are locked in a long-standing war for control of China. The story follows the fate of Xiang Yu (the good guy): a formidable warrior and yet subject (as all tragic heroes are) to a fatal character flaw—hubris. This, combined with a tendency to be easily provoked, brings about his downfall (masterminded by the treacherous, Li Zuoche).
The warlord leads his troops into a deadly trap and, despite Xiang Yu’s own prowess and courage, he is defeated and forced to retreat. Back at camp, his best option seems to be to slip through enemy lines and escape to build a new army from scratch. His main worry is the fate of his beloved concubine, Yu Ji (who is his confidante and adviser, as well as a loving consort). He cannot leave her behind, but to travel with her (as she herself points out), would increase his own chances of being captured. How will it all end? It’s a tragedy, so work it out for yourself.
It is the Chinese custom to applaud and shout ‘Hao!’ (‘Bravo’) at any suitable point in the performance—this performance provokes many such outbursts of appreciation from those of Chinese heritage (the rest of us follow, supportively). Houselights remain up, throughout. Children chatter and ask questions of their parents. The “irritating” tones of a man, seemingly determined to give a running commentary on the whole show, turn out, charmingly, to be an old gentleman carefully explaining events onstage to his granddaughter.
For a Western audience, the easiest elements to appreciate are the costumes and the acrobatics—the production is a riot of colour and activity. The battle scene would make Busby Berkeley envious—flashes of colour, choreographed and carefully coordinated skirmishes and some very impressive somersaulting. Exciting stuff.
In the final scene, the painted backdrop comes into its own as, seen through a gauze curtain, the impression of looking out mist-shrouded hills and valleys, is bewitching. The concubine’s dance in this scene is a marvel of dexterity and grace.
Instrumentally, Western audiences are more likely to be familiar with the sight and sounds of classical Chinese instruments. The score is expertly woven into the onstage action. As a bonus, the small orchestra sits stage left (rather than in a pit) and are thus part of the spectacle.
Undoubtedly, the most challenging aspects of the art form—for Western eyes and ears—are the acting, the movement and the singing. As with the traditional masks and make-up, the gestures, expressions, movement across and around the stage, postures and poses and the tone of vocal delivery are all significant contributors to the meaning of the whole.
As for the singing; imagine the voices of melodic felines, fed in through a drum synthesiser and out via a wah-wah pedal. It’s simultaneously alien and marvellous. Unforgettable.
If the dramatic climax is the battle scene, the emotional climax lies in the final scene, where the weight of meaning is carried by the concubine, Yu Ji. Attempts to comfort and raise the spirits of her lord, Xiang Yu, are set against solitary reflections on life, love and loss. Some of the moments she shares with Xiang Yu (played magisterially by Liu Kiukiu) convey genuine intimacy and heartbreak. Yu Ji herself (played with a studied and expert grace by Zhu Hong) has tears in her eyes at this point, and I am sure she is not the only one.
Liverpool’s Chinese community (the oldest established in Europe) is well-represented (not least by the little children presenting flowers and gifts to the cast at curtain). Pleasingly, there are many in the audience who are clearly not of Chinese lineage. For us, it is a memorable experience, indeed.
The Chinese National Peking Opera Company—Hao!
Reviewer: Martin Thomasson