staged events, part the second

December 4, 2008

So, still buoyant from our happy time at the Gielgud theatre, we went a couple of weeks later to the Mad Max inspired Millenium Dome, now much more branding-consciously called the O2 Arena, essentially a yurt on steroids filled with American-themed steak-and-cocktail eateries, drinkeries and clubbings. With a stage of some sort attached. We were there to see Monkey: Journey to the West, a production of the ancient Chinese story of the Buddhist priest Tripitaka (or more properly,  Xuanzang) and the Monkey King, Sūn Wùkōng (or Qítiān Dàshèng, “Great Sage, Equal of Heaven”) and their journey to India to collect the famous three baskets of sacred scrolls (the actual tripitaka, which gave the priest his honorary name.)

The story has been a staple of Asian legend for hundreds of years, and was brought to my attention by the Japanese TV series made of it between 1978 and 1980. I didn’t get around to looking up the printed translation until about 4 years ago. A very fun read, so I was very pleased to hear of the new stage production here.

Especially pleased because of the creative team behind it: Chen Shi-zheng, Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, very stylish gents all, in their fields. So off we went to the cultural Arena, or more precisely, to a second sub-tent ’round the back of the main über Petri dish. I have to say I was impressed. I think it was the first theatre performance I’ve seen where I thought I could sit through it all again straight away (over 2 hours plus intermission!)

There were subtitles to read (it was all performed in Mandarin, the cast being mostly, if not entirely Chinese), though not many, but with so much going on on stage that I was torn between keeping my eyes riveted to the antics and acrobatics and flicking them offstage to the projected text on either side.

The first half focussed on the birth and life of Monkey, and the eventual formation of Tripitaka’s expeditionary troupe, much the way the translation I read did. If you’re more familiar with the TV show this will come as a bit of a revelation, as it glossed over that bit in the intro, then got down to what happens after the intermission of the stage production, the battles with the monsters (which makes it perfect TV fodder – the Chinese original had 81 Monsters of the Week already written in!) Eventually the troupe makes it, despite all adversity, to the temple which is their destination, to pick up the scrolls and be blessed by Buddha. Yay!

Apparently they do travel back to China, sacred scrolls in hand, where Tripitaka spends the rest of his life translating, reciting, and teaching them, but that wasn’t covered in this production. Phew.

Excellent staging and all ’round production values, I thought, though I’m far from an expert. Two thumbs up.

That’s two wins from two performances! Just before xmas, we have cheap tickets to Spamalot. We’ll see if we can get the hat-trick. Wish us luck…


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