The Monkey King and Other Tales

Guizhou Theatre of Beijing Opera
Hackney Empire

Farewell My Concubine

Presented as part of the China to Hackney Festival and the London 2012 Festival, this programme of highlights from the classic Beijing Opera repertoire is presented by a company from the south-western province of Guizhou, but they perform not in the indigenous Dixi style, which dates from much earlier, but in the Beijing or Jingju style, which developed in the north in Beijing in the eighteenth century.

It is now a traditional, simply staged form usually featuring a setting of a table and two or more chairs, richly covered in gold and red fabric, but it is dressed in highly decorative costumes which, with make-up and deportment, indicate the character, though, as in the first scene presented here, a girl tending her chickens may have rich robes and a jewel-covered headdress.

Jingju has a small orchestra of bowed and plucked string instruments that carry melody and drum, clappers (which often punctuate or highlight action), large and small gongs and cymbals. Percussion rhythms and certain melodies, as well as gesture, may carry information about character and meaning. As with many cultural codes this can only be fully understood by those well versed in the form, but the four extracts in this programme seemed to have been chosen not only for their popularity with Chinese audiences but for the ease with which newcomers would be able to appreciate their artistry and follow what was happening. There is also a brief introduction in English to proceed each piece as well as a brief plot summary in the programme.

The programme opened with Picking Up the Jade Bracelet, showing a little ruse employed by a young man to make the acquaintance of a girl he fancies without breaking the strict codes of behaviour. Gao Nina is quite delightful in this huadan (lively young girl) role calling her chickens, scattering grain for them and rounding up a straggler, all in completely explicit mime. There is no doubt of the young scholar’s attraction as played by fan-flourishing Hou Jianguang, who conspicuously lets a jade bracelet fall on the ground. She drops a handkerchief on top of it to give an excuse for picking it up and then he has a reason for approaching her to request its return, watched meanwhile by Li Juabo’s comic matchmaker.

Next comes a classic moment from Farewell My Concubine in which the warring King Xiang Yu (Hou Xiaojie) is facing defeat. His concubine Yu Ji sings to him and performs a sword dance before they both commit suicide. They did not really play the context but the dance itself is a star turn with two swords being swung and posed in a complicated fashion as a major part of the choreography. It seemed to me that Hou Danmei’s performance could do with more finesse. Her swords were not always turned at matching angles or in parallel positions but it was nevertheless an entertaining and attractive thing to watch.

More accomplished is Zhou Weijia as the maiden in The Heavenly Maiden Scattering Flowers in which you see no actual flowers but the performer makes intricate patterns swirling many years of pastel-tinted scarf that trail behind her as she enters. Sheer visual delight.

The programme ends with Eighteen Arhats Fighting Against Monkey King, featuring the ever-popular Monkey King in an adaptation of an episode from the classical epic novel Journey to the West. This presents us with the monkey Sun Wukong escaping from the Eight Trigram Furnace where he has been confined and fighting his way out of the Jade Emperor’s palace until eventually subdued by the Buddhist monks and warriors. It is a crowd-pleasing spectacle of tumbling interaction as Sum Wukong with his fighting pole seems to be able to handle their multiple assaults. Fan Yu is a very lively Money and Hou Jianguang a rather charming Tiger.

My Chinese companion, who knows much more about these things than I do, found the performance of this last piece underpowered and indeed I have myself seen similar scenes played with much more vigour. Nonetheless this selection of star showpieces was very enjoyable and gave made an excellent taster for those not already familiar with Peking Opera.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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