Monkey: Journey to the West

Conceived, written and directed by Chen Shi-Zheng
Monkey's World at O2
(2008)

Production photo

Initially a co-production of the Théâtre du Châtelet and the Manchester International Festival, this show based on a famous Chinese story has also already been seen at the Spoleto Festival in the USA and at the Royal Opera House. It is a tale familiar to many generations of Chinese and to those older television viewers for whom a Japanese television version became essential weekly viewing some decades ago. This version, with a through score composed by ex-Blur star Damon Albarn with design and animation by his Gorillaz partner Jamie Hewlett, can only outline the complex story of a band of travellers from China to the Buddhist heartland in India to obtain copies of Buddhist scripture to guide the Chinese people to a true adherence to his teachings.

It begins with the birth of Monkey from a stone egg, which bounds down from a mountaintop, bouncing from peak to peak before cracking open, a sequence depicted in video in an orientalised version of Hewlett's cartoon style. You've seen it already, for the BBC Olympic coverage idents were closely related to the characters in Monkey. This than transforms into live action with a set that combines projection and built pieces where sometimes you cannot be certain whether a certain feature is scenery or performer - often an acrobat balanced in some contortionist position that could be part of the structures like the grotesquely shaped rocks in Chinese gardens that are a feature of the décor. More video interludes link some of the scenes in the journey when Monkey (full name Sun Wu Kong) first goes in search of immortality, travelling beneath the sea to find an ideal weapon, then up to heaven before becoming trapped under the Buddha's fingers for 500 years before being released to be the protector of the ultra pure monk Hsuan-tsang on his journey to the west. The monk, now called Tripitaka after the name of the 'three-baskets' scriptures he is going to collect, is also joined by a former general in heaven, whose lustful and gluttonous behaviour led him to being sent back to earth where he was accidentally reincarnated as a pig, and a depressed cannibalistic former general to the Jade emperor demon who is given the chance of redemption if he joins this quest.

What we get is a series of nine scenes which are less story telling than spectacular and colourful set pieces that are the excuse for a fantastic display of acrobatics and martial arts and draw on the skills of Chinese opera and circus. Everything is sung (and occasionally spoken) in Mandarin with text translations, projected on either side of the very wide stage, that hint at the depth of philosophy and some of the satire that exist in the original story and do help to keep you in touch with what is going on if you are in a position where you can read them. I was, but that advantage meant that from my seat one side of the stage was masked and I was aware that there must have been something happening when all I could see was an empty stage. Avoid the extreme side blocks if you can.

It is disappointing that such an important Chinese story is presented with so little importance given to its meaning but there is plenty to enjoy, not least Albarn's music which has taken on a Chinese tinge - I'm no trained musician but is he actually using a Chinese tonic scale, at least some of the time? His vocal lines sound as though they really match the words and leave them intelligible - unlike some English language opera writing. There is nothing I went home whistling but there are many delightful melodies, especially for the Goddess Guan Yin who floats high over the audience's heads, and some exciting sounds to match the many battles which involve aerial soldiers and fire-spinning warriors as well as demons and monsters. There are some lovely moments using a saw and some repetitive riffs that remind one of John Adam or Philip Glass - though when they go on very long with the stage left blank one suspects there's a hitch in the scene change, or some new entrant out of my seat's vision. It sounds great - and the sound engineers have achieved an excellent balance, and it looks splendid too, though a final concept of a team of green and red clad girls spinning hundreds of mauve plates is not my idea of enlightenment and does rather let down the image - no matter how skilfully though they spin them. That perhaps is a key to the flaw in the whole show - it is sometimes to consciously a vehicle for the skills on display rather than those skills serving the purpose of the show.

The talent on display is nevertheless fantastic. From the deep voiced Buddha (Liu Chang) to the mellifluous Guan Yin (Huo Yuanyuan) as well as the fantastic members of the Dalian Acrobatic Troupe who provide the acrobats and martial artists. Yao Ningning is a charming Tripitaka, Xu Kejia Pigsy and He Zijun the Sand Monk, and standing out above them all is the charismatic, cheekily camp performance of the endearing Monkey himself, Cao Jiangtao. You don't need Mandarin to understand him: this is star calibre playing, even were he not so skilled in Chinese Opera techniques.

If you are taking children it is worth taking a look at the company website and telling them all about the story first so that they have no difficulty following what is happening. Even if they can see the surtitles clearly they may go to fast for youngsters to read (though you might not want them to understand some of Pigsty's lustful goings on or the near loss of Trip taka's virginity!). There is also a synopsis in the programme but be warned, that will cost you a full £10! Going to www.monkeyjourneytothewest.com is free!

At O2 until 5th December

Reviewer: Howard Loxton