Musicals and Opera
New Town Theatre
19 – 24 Aug
The Zheijiang Kunqu Opera Troupe is commemorating the 400th anniversary of the deaths of William Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu, China’s most famous and well-respected dramatist, born in the 1550s and dying, like Shakespeare, in 1616. The Peony Pavilion is his most famous play: this show presents a version of it in the traditional Kunqu opera style.
Du Liniang, a sixteen-year-old girl, and Liu Mengmei, a young scholar, first meet each other in a dream. When she awakes, Du thinks she will never meet her lover in waking life: she waits, but slowly sinks into a decline and dies. Liu meanwhile has set off in search of the girl of his dreams: and even though he arrives three years after her death, the power of her love defies even death, and the lovers are finally united.
It’s visually gorgeous. The lovers appear in a succession of fabulous beautifully embroidered and colourful costumes; the Infernal Judge who sits in judgement on the dead has the most glorious emerald green garment; and even Du’s maid has beautiful clothes. Traditional musicians sit each side of the stage, accompanying the singing and dialogue and providing expressive and atmospheric music for the dances – I wish I had had more time simply to watch and enjoy their playing. Their music was familiar to my ear: the singing and dialogue was fascinatingly alien.
Chinese opera is nothing like western opera: it’s a fusion of music, song, dance, martial arts, acrobatics and literary art forms. Movement and gesture are stylised, and are designed to suggest reality rather than portray it accurately. Much use of the lovers’ long sleeve extensions and mirroring of gesture and attitude create beautiful images and suggest the characters’ emotions, even to the ignorant westerner. Subtitles gave a helpful summary of the dialogue and words of the song (though they would benefit from a little attention from a first-language English speaker). The belief system underpinning the narrative is not something with which I’m familiar, so the ‘comic interlude’ with two monkey-like acrobats and the Infernal Judge, which I assume explains how Du was able to defy death and be reunited with her lover, was a little puzzling – but I got the gist of the narrative.
Although the style was so unfamiliar, the total commitment of the actors was obvious, and drew us into their world, keeping us engaged and enthralled, and receiving warm, enthusiastic applause. This show is only on for a few days: give yourself a treat and experience a very different and compelling art form which is a feast for the eyes.