Monkey, Journey to the West is a new musical work in the form of a modernised Chinese grand opera, conceived by Chen Shi-Zeng (a NYC based Chinese director), composed by Damon Albarn of Blur fame, and with a brilliant design concept and animation by Jamie Hewlett (Albarn’s collaborator on the cartoon band, Gorillaz). The ambitious work was co-commissioned by and as the centrepiece for, the first Manchester International Festival, along with the Chatelet in Paris and Berlin’s Staatsoper (the only other places to see the work, no London dates). The story is the ancient Chinese tale of the Monkey King, born from an egg, and his search of immortality and redemption, here told over 9 scenes in Chinese.
I entered Manchester’s Palace Theatre, usually the home to rather more conventional shows such as the touring versions of Cats and The Producers, with some trepidation. Was Albarn going to pull off a Chinese opera? He certainly does; his mix of traditional Chinese music, conventional western instruments and his own electronic sounds works superbly well. But this being Chinese opera, the music is not used as it would be in a conventional western opera, here much of the music is a background for acting and spectacle. The acting is physical and symbolic, no attempt at subtlety is made, and the often brilliant gestures and characterisations are highly entertaining. The whole show, again in line with Chinese opera, is actually an amazing physical theatre spectacle, with a cast of over 50 Chinese acrobats, singers and performers combining to dazzling effect. We have blisteringly quick swordplay, martial monks, fire jugglers and multiple plate spinners, not to mention fairies, demons and dragons. I have to praise Jamie Hewlett for his concept and illustrations, the vivid fantasies he creates are very memorable indeed. They are conjured on screens (this is a multimedia performance), but more impressively (being rather more tricky to realise) in the detailed costumes of the characters and physical aspects of the set. Hewlett and the director Chen Shi-Zhen really make Monkey’s vibrant world come to life, like a bizarre but fun dream. Monkey is played superlatively by Fei Yang, his physicality and loveable cheekiness combines to make an irresistible hero (though he is a brilliant swordsman and could just as easily slit your throat). The rest of the main parts are also marvellously performed; I couldn’t name one weak link. Deserving special praise though, and making an excellent end to the show, are the 11 women who spin 5 plates in each hand and yet still manage to climb atop one another to create the stunning impression of a huge green and pink flower, an image which I will not forget in a hurry. This is like visiting an avant-garde version of the Chinese State Circus. Not one of the performers during the 110 minute running time made one mistake, which is extraordinary.
The Chinese dialogue appears on subtitles, which we frankly could have done without (people were madly bobbing up and down trying to see what was written), this being a broad and physical production, with a relatively simple story (Monkey goes on a journey, is arrogant, but eventually redeems himself). The dialogue itself is very old fashioned and ‘historical’, not exactly a riveting or very illuminating read anyway. Who needs subtitles in a brilliantly realised underwater scene featuring magnificent sea creatures and a nuclear missile anyway?
I’m so pleased that the Manchester International Festival kicked off its inaugural programme with such an innovative and impressive co-production, it will create high expectation for the biennial festival’s next outing in 2009. The music is good, but the unique visuals and luminous performances make Monkey something really special.