Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; January 30, 2015
Nanning Arts Theatre’s “Legend of the Sun” has clearly been responsible for employing a veritable army of people, from textile producers, dyers, shoemakers, costumiers, musicians (albeit recorded), lighting and set designers and, of course performers. This is theatre painted in the colours of the nursery with a very broad brush, its style never straying from the melodramatic.
It is actually a great pity, for the tale is actually rather dark and poignant, although I only discovered this by reading the programme on the way home. It is the story of a people who live without the sun, but who hear that there is a flaming orb over the far horizon. A pregnant woman decides to go to seek it. After many years, during which time her son is born and grows up, she dies, bequeathing the quest to him. He is soon distracted by a woman and is only reminded of his venture when he draws the image of the sun on his lover’s brow. He abandons his lover, but she follows his track through raging elements until it becomes apparent that thousands of people have joined them.
This is possibly a familiar tale for anyone from South-west China and will therefore not lose so much in the telling. It is difficult for anyone from other cultures not to cross-reference alternative sources, however. The opening is pure “Firebird” and much of the rest like “Coq d’Or”. It is tempting to imagine that the impact must be similar to that of the ballet “Excelsior”, with its hordes of performers and array of fussy props.
The set is clunky and scenes come thick and fast. At times it is almost like a feat of quick changes as costumes are paraded in all their pantomimic glory. The trucks are often handled clumsily and there is a blob of pinkish ‘rock’ that, being charitable, resembles a failed meringue; and being uncharitable, the result that would likely ensue were a cat to ingest a surfeit of prawns.
There is much beating of breasts and angst-ridden hand wringing that undercuts any hope that the audience might identify in a meaningful way with any of the characters. There is so much rushing to and fro and so many people coming on and off stage in increasingly weird garb that it is impossible to unravel the story.
Shuangbai Feng’s choreography is more acrobatics than dance. The first half comprises much creating of pyramids and climbing onto upturned feet and backs. A lot of it is rather hesitant and insecure. Again, it looks more like a pantomime spectacular (what used to be called a specialty act) than a monumental effort by the Mother character. Lifts look effortful and at one point, the Son inverts his lover who then executes the splits just as the music reaches a gushing climax. Vulgar in the extreme.
The music (by Gangbao Liu), sickeningly loud in places, is a very bizarre mash up that sounds more like a film score than a theatre piece. It is positively cheesy in places and throws every cliché in the book at the audience from a pot-pourri of styles.
Lighting is similarly unsubtle, more suited to the disco than the theatre. There are also a brace of fog machines in the downstage wings that wheeze noisily through much of the production, cutting through the moments when the soundtrack eases off.
In all of this, honourable mention must be made of Cui Zhenbo who, as the Son, puts in an energetic and expressive performance in spite of the production’s handicaps.
“Legend of the Sun” is a private hire of the theatre, and as such has not been promoted on the Sadler’s Wells website, which may explain the half empty auditorium. It is worth seeing as a colourful curiosity but be warned: if Friday’s audience is anything to go by, it will need to be viewed through a barrage of camera flashes, videoing, checking of e-mails and general chat, not to mention noisy and disruptive latecomers who were let in continuously throughout the first half.