Ride with explorer Zhang Qian in A Life on the Silk Road by the National Theatre of China

ZOO Southside, Edinburgh
August 13, 2018

David Mead

Part of the China Focus season and a joint project by Chinese and French artists, the dance-drama A Life on the Silk Road (行者无疆, 行者無疆) by the National Theatre of China (中国国家话剧院, 中國國家話劇院) tells the story of 2nd-century BC celebrated Silk Road explorer Zhang Qian (张骞, 張騫), an envoy of the Han Dynasty emperor Wudi (武帝), sent to establish relationships and trade links with the peoples of Central and West Asia.

Through dance, physical theatre, puppetry, drama and symbolic imagery, playwright Wang Jing (王婧), choreographer Hsu Wen-ye (许邺文, 許鄴文) and director Zhao Miao (赵淼, 趙淼) let the audience in on his journey of battles, imprisonment and hardship, but also of love and marriage.

Played by Wu Junda (吴俊达, 吳俊達), Zhang Qian is presented as being a hero in all senses: loyal, of strong faith and someone with great spirit. It helps that he is also rather handsome. He always believes in his mission and forges on but equally he’s no Superman and there are several examples of his humanity. As with all explorers, loneliness, fear and doubt are never that far away.

A Life on the Silk Road with Wu Junda (on the floor, left) and Tian He (standing, right)Photo National Theatre of China
A Life on the Silk Road with Wu Junda (on the floor, left) and Tian He (standing, right)
Photo National Theatre of China

Of the other main characters, I was particularly taken with the small and light-footed Tian Ge (田鸽, 田鴿) who plays Zhang Qian’s loyal horse. This is very much a symbolic portrayal, even the costume not making it obvious that is what she is. He Hongyu (何弘宇) plays Gan Fu (甘父), a man from an enemy state who becomes Zhang’s stout-hearted friend who also accompanies him.

Zhang Qian’s wife is played by the delightful Yu Hua (于华, 於華). One of the happiest moments in A Life on the Silk Road comes with a very pleasing, light duet for the couple when they first meet. Leaping into bed and having a baby (an excellent puppet) happens very quickly, though.

With everyone taking multiple roles, the ensemble is used to good effect as horses, camels and hostile fighters in battles, and at representing the very act of travelling itself. With the aid of banners and fabrics, they conjure up wind, rain, a human sandstorm and a snowy landscape. It’s in the latter that one of the show’s saddest moments comes as Zhang loses his horse to the snow. Handheld flags are also remarkably effective in creating interiors.

Symbolism is everywhere from Zhang Qian’s staff that gives him authority to masks and puppets. Among the more dramatic is the appearance of a huge red Qiongqi, a mythical creature from ancient times. In full form a tiger with wings, it’s a devil who causes wars. A smaller white bird stands for peace.

As appealing to watch as the action is, the narrative is not always totally clear. The short synopsis in the programme helps, but more detail would have been useful. The problem is compounded by Lu Chun-wei’s (芦春伟, 蘆春偉) costumes that are mostly in similar muted, earthy colours. That may be realistic, and certainly helps with quick changes, but it does little for clarity. Don’t worry, if you don’t get everything, though, because it’s a visual treat anyway.

The story also perhaps pushes on a little too fast at times. There are several occasions when scenes or incidents could have been developed. I suspect A Life on the Silk Road could quite easily be turned into an extremely effective two-act production.

Part recorded, part played live, the music by French composer Uriel Barthelemi accompanies the action well. On-stage musician Pan Yu (潘瑜) was outstanding on pipa and guzheng.

Mathieu Sanchez’s multimedia projections generally sit nicely in the background. His depiction of erupting volcanoes and Zhang Qian’s falling down a hole are especially impressive.

All round, a great easy on the eye evening, recommended to anyone who enjoys dance-drama.

A Life on the Silk Road is at ZOO Southside to August 24. Visit tickets.edfringe.com for details and tickets.