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Peking Opera Classics at Sadler’s Wells:
I’m a big opera fan but have to confess that when I was asked to review the China National Peking Opera Company at Sadler’s Wells, I had no real sense of whether it going to be Mozart in Mandarin or a more indigenous form of entertainment. I went the troupe of 65 performers including two legendary stars, Yu Kuizhi and Li Shengsu, performing a double bill of short mime and martial arts plays – Peking Opera classics The Crossroads Inn & The Monkey King and The Leopard. Peking Opera is known as ‘Jingju’ in China which translates as ‘capital drama’. It is a hybrid form bringing together elements from Hubei, Kanqu and Shanxi operas, folk tunes and other elements including literature, painting, dancing, mime and acrobatics. It emerged during the early 19th C and there are now over 1000 Peking Operas in the repertory. Actors train from a young age at opera school before being taken on as an apprentice by one of the masters of this art form. In their training young hopefuls choose one of four character archetypes as their specialization – Sheng (male role), Dan (female role), Shing (painted faces), and Chou (clown). Arriving at Sadler’s Wells it was clear that many of the multi-generational audience were predominantly of Chinese origin who were excitedly chattering about the upcoming performances. Music is a major feature of Peking Opera with the action being driven along by a percussive score featuring sometimes almost funky rhythms primarily played on gongs and wood-blocks. The audience also participates, applauding after exceptional action scenes as the actors strike a pose and shouting out ‘hao’ (bravo) when impressed. The first half of the show was devoted to a short martial arts play entitled The Crossroad Inn. General Jiao Zan, framed for a crime he didn’t commit, is being taken into exile by two hapless guards. With some fine comic acting the General convinces one of the guards to take off his manacles and wear them himself. The threesome eventually stay the night at an inn where there is a hilarious martial arts ‘fight in the dark’ played out on the fully lit stage between the General’s secret bodyguard Tanghui Ren, an athletic performance by Haoquiang Wang, and the well-meaning innkeeper Liu Lihua in an amazing acrobatic display by Bo Liu. The precision of the fight scene was extraordinary and the inclusion of slapstick elements didn’t diminish the quality of the work. Having surtitles mean it was completely straight-forward to follow the narrative. The second half of the show featured the traditional folk story of The Monkey King and the Leopard. It opens with the Evil Leopard Spirit and his ‘monsters’ showing their domination of the Hongmei Mountain region. He wishes to marry the daughter of Deng Hong, a local aristocrat who is terrified about his human daughter marrying this evil god. The Monkey King and his friends Pigsy, Sandy Monk, Master Tang Seng and White-Dragon Horse are passing through the village and decide to help with Monkey King and Pigsy transforming themselves into looking like Deng’s daughter and her maid. When the Leopard Spirit arrives to claim the girl there is a big fight, however, the Leopard escapes after losing the battle and sets a trap for the Monkey King. The Monkey King foresees the Leopard’s plan and goes to the Heavenly Guards for backup and the final battle ends with the triumph of the Monkey King over the Leopard. The show was a spectacular blend of balletic acrobatics, circus skills – The Leopard does an astounding juggling act with his trident so it seems to be floating in the air music, costume, drama and humour that makes for a wonderful family entertainment that is both totally accessible to a Western audience, yet deeply rooted in Chinese culture and tradition. The performers are top-notch and it felt like a real treat to get this insight into Chinese culture whilst being royally entertained. Catch them if you can!
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