Running the Silk Road

Written by Paul Sirett
Conceived and directed by David Tse Ka-shing
Produced by Yellow Earth Theatre in association with Beijing Opera and Watford Palace Theatre. Part of bite08 Barbican Pit (end of tour)
(2008)

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In a student union bar young British Chinese Kenneth Fung tells his friends that he has been dumped by girl friend Xi because he spends all his time on study and wants to postpone their wedding until he completes his PhD. His thesis is on the 2000-year-old Shan Hai Jing, the Chinese Classic Of the Mountains and Seas, a fabulous account of pre-Qin Chinese geography and wildlife that includes a catalogue of gods and mythical beings.

Xi has gone off to China to work with a charity team on flood relief in Guandong. To win her back, and show he cares as much about the world as she does, Ken plans to make a sponsored run the whole length of the ancient Silk Road -- 5,000-miles from Turkey to Beijing -- to arrive in time for the Olympics. He wants his mates to help him. They are Dina, daughter of an Iranian Shia Muslim, and Jahid, son of Sunni Muslims, who just happens to be gay - it is a nice change to have a gay character in a play that is not specifically abut gay issues. With them is his cousin Wei whose father, making a fortune chopping down forests in Africa, has financed a sort of 'gap year' for him. Wei offers to finance the trip.

The rest of the play follows their journey, interspersing it with reports from Xi of floods, earthquakes and mine disasters in China and sequences in which the gods and monsters of the Shan Hai Jing do battle to parallel their problems and China's ecological disasters. It is performed in a mixture of English and Mandarin Chinese, with surtitles as necessary when the text itself does not include sufficient explanation for an English audience, and the mythological sequences are performed in Chinese Opera style by three actors from the Beijing Opera Theatre.

Nick Chee Ping Kellington (Ken), Saraj Chaundhry (Jahid), and Betsabeh Emran ( Dina) make a believable set of friends, whose friendship can over-ride their differences and frustrations and there is a on going confrontation between eco-conscious Dina and Wei (Chia Kuei Chen) whose forest-destroying father is nevertheless providing Africans with employment. They do not get much opportunity to explore their characters and the plotting, which forges ahead with their quest-like journey, does not stop to explain how they manage when they run out of money, but their performances have already won the audience over so that the rather precipitous ending, if predictable, is also moving.

Yoo Bae has designed a stunningly simple set with a jagged, red-edged ground row like a chain of mountains, a single stricken bush and a red zig-zag across sky cloth and stage floor that suggests both furious elements and earthquakes. Less happy are the travelling trunks she, or her director, have trundling on and off to form a car, a bed, a bus and other scenic features. They do their job but are they necessary? Getting them on and off in black-outs holds make a pattern of interruptions that makes it more difficult to integrate the Chinese Opera sequences performed by Gongxin Lan, Shen Feng and Yanzhong Huang.

While the physical skills of Beijing Opera can be impressive, its vocal style is more difficult for Western ears, especially when placed alongside Western performance. Immersed in it, it is possible to become accustomed to its sonorities but in this context they seemed odd and often harsh making for an opposition rather than integration of styles.

At the Barbican until 28th June 2008

This production was reviewed by V Mitchell on tour in Newcastle

Reviewer: Howard Loxton