Peacock Theatre, London
July 23, 2016
One of the greatest legacies that the late historian Eric Hobsbawn left us is his ability to link history globally. History used to be taught in chunks: one ‘does’ pre-history, the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans, Tudors and so on (it took me decades to realise that the Normans and the Vikings were the same people). Now history is taught in bites and recorded in sound bites.
Unless one is a Sino specialist, it will likely come as a surprise then to discover what was happening in Chinese culture in an era which, in terms of the arts at least, is very familiar to us. Shakespeare and the author of the Peony Garden Tang Xianzu were contemporaneous and died in the same year, 1616.
In this the 400th anniversary year of the two great authors, the Zhejiang Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Troupe (浙江小百花越劇團) has combined two signature works, Coriolanus and The Peony Garden in a remarkable tribute, Coriolanus and Du Liniang (寇流兰与杜丽娘). Shakespeare has long been a favourite of opera and ballet librettists and this match is no exception. Chinese opera lends itself to both grand, sweeping statements and nuanced detail. The story of the rise and fall of Roman general Coriolanus is not at all dissimilar to many traditional opera plots and manages to convey touchingly intimate scenes and epic ensemble pieces with equal effect.
The singing from the all-woman ensemble (led by Mao Weitao, 茅威涛 as Coriolanus) is stunning, combining traditional Peking Chinese opera technique with a less stylised manner, all delivered with exactness and purity. This variation on Peking opera has a tradition of en travesti roles, but Coriolanus also reminds one of Maoist-era warrior women. Indeed, China is no stranger to female warriors either.
Coriolanus’ world may seem far removed from the seclusion of the peony garden where Du Liniang pines away of unrequited love, but they meet in a dream, each learning from each other, and meanwhile providing a parable for east-west relations. There are multiple references throughout, with the citizens’ hatred being reminiscent of Orwell’s Big Brother as multiple fists are projected on the backdrop to accompany the revengeful chanting of the crowd. In a very oriental twist, one arm is revealed to have a martial tattoo emblazoned from wrist to elbow.
The stage is bare, leaving plenty of room for the performers but enchantingly enhanced by stunning projections. An outline of Rome appears, gradually being inked in like a living cartoon that is then fleshed out by the under-projection of the actual buildings. A watercolour slowly develops before the eyes to reveal a monochrome of the peony garden that then blossoms into three dimensions as the full image is displayed underneath. At the end, a simple projection of a kaleidoscope gives way to a burning sun throwing out blazing flares which is gradually eclipsed as east and west unite.
There is wit among the tragedy and the company are not afraid of making their jokes extremely contemporary – “If you don’t believe me, look it up on Google” being an example. Choreography ranges from naturalistic and pedestrian to the traditional walk of the Peking opera with hints of tai-chi. At several points, the ensemble use high backed chairs to great effect, creating barriers and opportunities for climbing. Chairs are also tossed to evoke anger.
It is a captivating work that reminds us of the power of cultural ties, leaves one mesmerised for the full three hours and produces an aching desire that hostilities never increase between our two countries.