Thursday, January 8, 2009

Everybody's A Critic: My Simian Adventure

I have been following the rise and success of Monkey: Journey to the West opera since last spring because I was intrigued at the idea of an opera that incorporated a kaleidoscope of multimedia effects, martial arts and cirque du soleil-like costumes and acrobatics, all set against the backdrop of a Chinese childhood fable. Monkey is not aimed at the average opera-goer.

The opera was created as a collaboration between Chinese director Chen Shi-zheng, UK’s Blur frontman Damon Albarn who composed the score and Tank Girl artist Jamie Hewlett who envisioned the set, animation and costumes. Albarn and Hewlett’s most recent collaboration together was the highly successful virtual band Gorillaz.

Monkey: Journey to the West tells the story of Monkey and his companion's pilgrimage to bring back the Buddhist scrolls from India. In their quest for redemption and their hopes for immortality, the group must confront the White Skeleton Demon, the Spider Woman and Princess Iron Fan.

After missing the sold out shows at both the Spoleto Festival and a limited engagement at Royal Opera House, I finally got to watch this “circus opera” in a specially constructed tent at the Meridian Gardens, right next to London’s O2 Arena last month. It was worth the wait.

My friend Chris and I watched as the 2 hour extravaganza unfold before us with the Mandarin speaking, operatic singers as well as the corde lisse aerialists, plate spinners, uni-cyclists, contortionists and hand balancing, pole climbing, gravity-defying acrobats.

The first couple of scenes of Monkey: Journey to the West had me a touch annoyed watching the brattish and arrogant Monkey causing havoc all around. It also started wearing thin as Monkey continually snorts out his annoying laugh, hisses at his enemies and scratches at his nether regions. It's only when Monkey gets his come-uppance, that the opera starts to get better.

I found the animation projected on the scrim before each scene wonderfully imaginative, the costumes and make up striking and eye-catching and the colourful set, especially the last scene with the 30 foot Buddha mountain fantastical.

The 20 piece orchestra playing both western and eastern instruments sat stage right in full view of the audience, which I thought lent itself to creating an intimate feeling. The classical/pop music were catchy and accessible.

What was weak about the production was that the surtitles were off to both stage left and right, rather than projected above the stage, which meant that as you read what was being sung, you’d miss the visuals and routines on stage. As well, in keeping with the big-top circus feel, the long rows of metallic bleacher-style seats were uncomfortable to sit in for such a long period of time. But these small inconveniences did not detract from the opera.

The story even got a bit saucy, getting a modern and adult spin on the childhood fable. This is apparent in the scene where the scantily-clad Spider Women tries to seduce the pilgrims Tripitaka and Pigsy on their silk banners hanging down from the rafters. The song they sing gives rise to a new euphemism for doing the sexy times with the phrase, “Let's rock the dragon and flip the phoenix."

The event space for Monkey: Journey to the West also includes a pre-show dinner and intermission lounge, red paper lanterns festooning the ceiling of the lobby, a foot massage parlour, a painted wall mural where you can take pictures standing beside Monkey on their journey and a booth selling merchandise ranging from £10-80.

After Monkey ended, Chris and I got to hang out for a backstage tour, walk amongst the very diminutive acrobats and performers with their wash board six pack stomachs as well as meet and have a drink with the show producer so that I could express my appreciation on a wonderfully stylish production.

I waited so long and never thought I would be able to catch Monkey but I'll be a monkey's uncle that the opportunity as well as the timing did finally present itself.

~ Ling Chan

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