Reviews of performances by the China National Peking Opera at the Sadler's Wells Theatre Oct 21st - 25th 2017
The hero of the The Phoenix Returns Home makes his first appearance in purple silk, gorgeously embroidered with wisteria flowers. “He is dressed so shabbily,” the heroine notes sympathetically. “His family must have fallen on hard times.”
Peking Opera (this state troupe still uses the older form of the city’s name, rather than the modern Beijing) combines song, dance, acrobatics and spectacular costumes to tell its stories. Roles and performances are highly stylised, with makeup and clothes identifying characters as particular types – the beautiful heroine, the clown, the dignified older man.
The Phoenix Returns Home is one of the most popular comedies, created in 1929 by Dr Mei Langfang and given its European premiere here. The setup is familiar from fairy tales and traditional comedies around the world: there are two sisters, one plain and one pretty, ambitious parents, a poor but handsome scholar and a rich older lord.
After posing as their better-looking counterparts, the ugly sister and the lord accidentally end up married. It takes a quartet of gossiping, matchmaking generals to sort out the confusion and reunite the pretty people!
Sadler’s Wells said ni hao to China’s renowned theatre company, the China National Peking Opera, who returned to the London stage and performed A River All Red.
The plot, suitably gladiator-esque in style, followed the attempts of general Yui Fe, to protect the Song Dynasty against the Jin Dynasty invasion. Yet, set against a backdrop of betrayal, a theme which resonated throughout the masterpiece, Yiu Fe was manipulated by the Song’s chancellor QinHui, a spy from the Jin Dynasty, into peace negotiations.
The tale, based on a true story from 1140, followed this conflict in a performance so immersive it was easy to believe you had been transported to the banks of the Yellow River, itself, as opposed to being a stone’s throw away from the Thames.
From the exposition to the denouement of the narrative, the lead performers, Yu Kuizhi, Li Shengsu and Hu Bin, effortlessly owned the stage, while captivating the audience’s attention. The modest set, was more than compensated for by the performers’ mesmering costumes, whose weight appeared not to trouble them. They made light work of the acrobatics, song and fighting scenes – elements which give the Peking Opera its name and differentiate it from its Western relative.
Although, performed entirely in the ancient Chinese dialact of Changbai, a cultural unfamiliarity which could wrong-foot even the most seasoned Thespian, the use of surtitles allowed the audience to follow the plot without difficulty. This was coupled with the music of the Peking Opera, Ban Qiang in style, which was strangely mesmering, and complemented the narrative’s dramatic structure without fail.
The audience loved the broad humour of the piece. The equation of ugly with immoral is a familiar idea from traditional tales the world over, but can still be a bit hard to take. However, the warm hearted performances by Chen and, also notably, Wang Jue (in the clown role of the rich, stupid Lord Zhu) made it more bearable.
They threw themselves into their key comic roles; meanwhile Chen Xuzhi was an appealingly bemused Mu. The star performer Li made this production her own, though; she twinkled and twittered as the “virtuous” beautiful daughter, prepared to die rather than lose her reputation – but there was something decidedly steely in the dismissive flick of her water sleeve, and her giggling delight in everyone else’s mishaps.