Farewell My Concubine
Chinese National Peking Opera Company
Sadler's Wells Theatre
Western audiences may be familiar with Chen Kaige’s 1993 film Farewell My Concubine, with Leslie Cheung and Fong Li, which was based on a book by Lilian Lee. This isn’t that story, which was set in the twentieth century and about actors in a Chinese opera company, but is the opera that the film showed in performance, the plot of which was partly paralleled in the book and its film version.
The original Farewell is set at the end of the 3rd century BCE when the army of Liu Bang, founder of the Han Dynasty, defeats the forces of Xiang Yu. It focuses on the loyalty to Xiang Yu of his favourite concubine Yu Ji.
General Han Xin, commander of the Han, plans to ambush Xiang Yu and his army. He sends Li Zuoche to pose as a traitor, changing sides to encourage him to go into battle despite having a much smaller army. He falls into the trap and is defeated and surrounded. He tells his beloved concubine that they should fight their way out together but she, thinking he has better chance of success alone, kills herself to make his escape the easier.
With the aid of surtitles on both sides of the stage, it is an easy plot to follow but an audience non-versed in the detailed signage of the Chinese classical theatre inevitably misses the detail conveyed through dress, make-up and gesture, though that is more than made up for by the splendour of the costumes and the clarity of performance.
As the generals of an army gather, their rank indicated by the flags that sprout like wings behind them, and their leader enters with slow and deliberate paces, the patterns of this formal theatre form are rapidly apparent. Things are signified rather than acted out whether it is a swiftly moving file of soldiers circling the stage, a spear thrust and a somersault with no actual contact that are a fatal contact, the flags with wheels upon them that indicate a chariot, or the miming of the groom and Xiang Yu to suggest his frightened favourite horse when it is brought to him.
The high-pitched vocalisation of Chinese opera may seem alien at first but the applause that greets some passages from experts in the audience suggests that these performers are really good ones. Similarly, their response to the precision of gesture indicates something special. Watching carefully you get some idea of the way it conveys information and perhaps also character even if you can’t understand it.
Though you may not understand the flipping of a long beard or a spreading of the fingers, it is easy to respond to the excitement of the fast and acrobatic battle sequences with Liu Kuikui’s Xiang Yu triumphing over an endless seeming sequence of adversaries.
As the story nears its ending, the loving relationship between the lovers, general and concubine, is touchingly expressed and Zhu Hong’s sword dance as Yu Ji is truly phenomenal.
Farewell My Concubine is a tragic story; unlike some Chinese opera, it has no comic characters obvious but Yu Ji’s scenes always bring lightness and even a touch of humour when for the umpteenth time she responds to a problematic or stressful moment by announcing that she has some wine prepared and her lover says, “let’s drink it.”
Although there have been several visits by Chinese companies playing in Cantonese style (and indeed the British Chinese community sometimes produces its own performances), a visit by a Beijing style company is a rarity—I think there has only been one in London since I first saw a visiting company in the 1950s. Partly that is because when Madame Mao controlled the arts in China, such forms fell out of favour.
Now they are again being mounted with such splendour—and there are a number of touring companies established (this is Group 1 company)—perhaps we shall see them more frequently and, I hope, for a longer season. Don’t miss them when they are back: Beijing Opera is an experience every theatre lover should get the chance to relish.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton