Sadler’s Wells, London November 19, 2015
Modern communications tend to push us towards a global cultural hegemony: Paris, London, Buenos Aires, New York – it is possible to see the same sort of performances and even the same shows. Whilst this is not necessarily a bad thing, it is refreshing to come up against something that is the epitome of the late Edward Said’s ‘other’.
Chinese opera is an amalgam of centuries of traditions of vocalisation, movement, mime and storytelling backed by sets and costumes that are steeped in ritual. Every gesture, every symbol on a flag or costume panel is redolent with meaning. Faces painted and naked stamp the character on the audience indelibly, even if they don’t have the knowledge to read them intimately.
The scope of the skills on display by the China National Peking Opera Company (中国国家京剧院 ) is breathtaking. Each performer not only spends years perfecting their character, they are masters of movement, vocal dexterity, martial arts and pantomime, any one of which is a specialisation in itself.
The vocal range is extraordinary and would be the envy of many a Western actor. In Warrior Women of Yang (杨门女将), it was quite heavily amplified but this still did not spoil the range of the women’s voices, now piano, now forte and ranging over at least three octaves. Guo Yaoyao in particular is extraordinary. If she were to be reincarnated, it would surely be as the most beautiful oriental cat imaginable. Her voice is not only fluid, but possesses a power that is only eclipsed by her sheer stage presence. At first she seems like a gentlewoman but soon turns into a powerhouse, holding her own on the battlefield and seeing off the enemy one by one.
The first act is relatively static; full of graceful gliding and expressive gestures. The grief of the women when it is finally revealed that their men have been slaughtered is truly moving. The women rally round and, in spite of the protestations of the men who want to negotiate peace, decide to avenge their family and defend their territory.
In Act II, the graceful gentlewomen are transformed into mighty warriors. Resplendent with martial pennons and trailing glorious pheasant feathers behind each ear, they win the day. Here, the tumbling and barrel turns (executed by the women as well as the men) are totally at the service of the plot, although there is some scope for the clowns.
On reflection, Peking Opera is perhaps not as alien an art form at is first appears: the clowns are Shakespearian, the women reminiscent of strong warrior women everywhere, the tale one that crosses cultures as well as the centuries.
The Chinese National Peking Opera Company is Chinese Opera at the top of its game and not to be missed. The musicians are also excellent, working flat out throughout.
A terrific evening was only marred by people in the front of the stalls who decided to forego the visceral experience of live performance in order to film everything on their mobiles. Not only did they miss out, they spoiled the enjoyment of those behind who had to suffer the spectacle of stabbing lights and screens held aloft.