Review of “The Peony Pavilion” part one – Suzhou Kunqu Opera company – Sadler’s Wells

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Although I am not a big opera fan, I am a big fan of Chinese culture, and when I realized I had the opportunity to see a full length (three day!) Chinese opera performed in London by a professional cast from China (the Suzhou Kunqu Opera company), I jumped at the chance. I was a bit hesitant to go for all three nights, but with my fellow Sinophile and good friend Mel encouraging me (well, she was just enthusiastic, but that was enough), I went for it and bought tickets for The Peony Pavilion at Sadler’s Wells (really good preview available on The Guardian‘s website). Surprisingly, I was even able to convince my husband to go, so we had a group of three with nice seats on the main floor. (Actually, he convinced himself to go for all three nights, saying, “You can’t just see one part of the Ring Cycle, so why would I only come for one evening of this opera?” As for me, I can see where you might want to see The Empire Strikes Back and skip Return of the Jedi, but I was glad he showed that much interest without even a little bit of prodding from me.)

We did our best to get warmed up beforehand at the New Culture Revolution restaurant (just around the corner from Angel station), but my noodle and dumpling soup still failed to be as good as what I used to get in Nanjing, so I left somewhat dissatisfied. (They also tried to give us a pot of tea with only half a teaspoon of leaves in it – what kind of fools did they take us for?) To be honest, I would have enjoyed it if the show had been more traditional in terms of serving us food and tea as we watched it (as it was for Slippery Mountain), but Sadler’s Wells isn’t really set up for that kind of thing, so I slipped several packets of candy into my bag to keep my strength up during the show.

I learned a lot about Chinese opera even last night. Kunqu opera is, in my mind, a more classical type than Beijing opera (last night featured NO acrobatic fight scenes at all, so if that’s what you want, you’re not going to get it). While some of the dialogue is spoken, most of it is sung in classical Chinese poetry (the kind where five characters compose and entire English sentence, i.e. “Empty/autumn/dream/wander” would be the Chinese spoken, but the English displayed on the screen would say, “I wander through this hollow Autumn, lost in dreams”). I think this seems a lot prettier than mere iambic pentameter – it was, in my mind, a play full of beautiful sonnets (although they seem like haiku in style and simplicity). Shockingly, my college Chinese came back to help me last night, and not only did I follow along with the spoken dialogue at an about 70% match rate, I was able to really enjoy the poetry. It was gorgeous, and I loved having our heroine (Du Liniang, played by Shen Fengying, who is a real marathoner) reciting swooning sonnets along the lines of “no brush can untangle my hair/no comb can untangle this life” as she mooned about. Fortunately, most of this was balanced in the most lovely way by the maid (Spring Fragrance, played either by Lu Jia or Zhou Xiaoyue last night), who was just so damned chipper and cute I wanted to tuck her under my arm and take her home with me.

As it turned out, while the costumes and makeup were elaborate, the sets and staging were quite simple. Hanging scrolls, either with calligraphy or paintings on them, served to create most of the backdrops, and the show relied on the dialogue to create the rest of the setting in your imagination. At one point, Du Liniang was talking about leaning up against a plum tree to think about her dream lover, and she held up her sleeve just so, and … she was leaning up against a tree, I could see it! Actually, the whole use of the sleeves to create emotional effects was quite interesting – I’ve never seen someone flirt with their sleeves before, or use them to express despair (no waving of the hands above the head here, thank goodness). The costumes themselves were really gorgeous. I got completely wrapped up in the parade of embroidered gowns during the fairy/dream sequence – each one of them was a different flower, with matching silk belts, flowered headress, and even tasselled shoes. Watching them dance on stage was a moment of pure theatrical gorgeousness – I was completely lost in the spectacle, which was my favorite of the whole evening and entirely worth the price of admission (though you really needed the rest of the show to feel the emotions of what was happening on stage).

But … the longness. Ah yes, the long. If you’re considering going, here are the running times: Part one, nine scenes, ends 10:35; Part two, nine scenes, ends 10:20; part three, nine scenes, ends two hours and forty-five minutes after the start. Synopsis of part one: meet the heroine, a sweet girl from a scholarly family; she falls in love with a boy she sees in a dream; the boy is real and goes to find the girl of her dreams; she mopes; she dies. Part two (synopsis: girl is in hell; boy makes it to where she used to live; ghost girl falls in love with boy; boy falls in love with ghost; war; ghost is brought back to life) sounds like a lot of fun, with much less moping than last night. Apparently the last one has a lot of battle scenes, but I haven’t read the program all of the way through so I can’t say for sure. I will be taking a very useful three day break between part two and three so that I go strong into the last show. And since the singing style is so unfamiliar to Western ears, the longness might combine to make it an evening that is just a little too much to handle, though I found it well suited to expressing the characters’ emotions.

So … how was it? I was really drawn in by the great acting and found myself not even reaching for the bags of fortifying candy I had ready to help get me through the show – not even once all the way through the TWO HOUR LONG FIRST FIVE ACTS (why they didn’t just have a break after the dream sequence I do not know). I have to say, if you didn’t understand Chinese culture at all, it probably would have been a bit of a frustrating show. But, you know what? I totally bought it. I was comparing it to Romeo and Juliet and realizing that the main characters were really very strong and very interesting, while still 100% in their own culture. (Actually, it was a bit Gothic, what with its obsession with love and death, but since the heroine was a 16 year old – who was also incredibly shallow and egotistical by Western standards – I was okay with this.)

Two more nights to go, and while I _will_ be getting hot tea prepared for us for intermission, I’m actually pretty enthused about it – though I wish they’d actually stuck to the schedule and let us out a little closer to 10:30 instead of at about 11.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, June 3rd. This show will be repeated on Friday, June 6th.)

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2 Responses to “Review of “The Peony Pavilion” part one – Suzhou Kunqu Opera company – Sadler’s Wells”

  1. kelvin Says:

    Watched this yesterday too and enjoyed the performance. Totally immersed in the acting.

  2. Webcowgirl’s review of London theater 2008 « Life in the Cheap Seats - Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] see “art” and instead giving me a bunch of “religion.” I much preferred the Peony Pavillion, which gave me a chance to see a truly classical Chinese performance (and over three […]

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