Review of “The Peony Pavilion” -下本- part three (”Reunion and Triumph”) – Suzhou Kunqu Opera company – Sadler’s Wells

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It seems inevitable that a show in which we have a section/act dominated by a ghost (including a bit set in hell) would have a bit of a hard act to follow (as it were) in subsequent scenes, or, in this case, in the final part of the three night Young Lover’s version of The Peony Pavilion. This afternoon’s presentation was far quieter than the previous, high-drama evenings. With a focus on family reunification, it was basically a wrap up for what had gone before. Du Bao has to be convinced that Liniang is his daughter and not a demon in disguise, but it’s a bit of a foregone conclusion how this will turn out (though I was finding it a bit Monty Python-esque and wondered if they were going to bring out the scales and a duck to settle the question). And Liu Mengmei’s trip to the scholarly exams, how could he be anything but a success? It was good to see the old servant of Liu’s finally treated with kindness, and somehow cheering to see the slightly sleazy Confucian scholar Chen Zuiliang promoted to work for the emperor, but … somehow it all seemed a bit like those “what happened to” sections at the end of a movie.

The most dramatic for me were the scenes in which Liu Mengmei hasn’t yet found out about his success, and is unable to so much as buy a bowl of rice … and then is tortured as a liar by his father in law. His situation seemed quite dire – how COULD he be believed (“I know your daughter is dead but I’m married to her”)? How could he feed himself? – and echoed the sufferings of many people in the past, in China and in other countries. Yet as soon as he is awarded his scholar’s robes, he becomes all arrogance – no more struggling amongst the hoi polloi for him! He insults his father-in-law, hinting that soon he will take his job, and threatens the elderly scholar with exposure as a liar – it’s as if all of his years of struggle have taught him not the least bit of sympathy toward others. And Liniang is so proud of herself for having found a number one scholar to be her husband! I just saw her and Liu turning into her parents – she complaining about not having enough honors and comforts, he bullying people lower than him. And I thought, this is a romance? Perhaps at one time this was happiness.

After three nights I felt compelled to give the lovely cast a standing ovation. I’ve decided my favorite performer was Lu Jia, who played Spring Fragrance the first night and Duchess Yang the second and third nights. She really commanded the stage and was a joy to watch – a top notch actress that would bring light to any show. Shen Fengying was, I think, a very good Du Liniang – her voice was sweet and she moped delightfully. However, I felt like the cast was tired tonight – the sleeve flipping seemed a bit slow and uncoordinated, and the energy levels were really down. I can’t blame them, though – it was their sixth night, and I was lucky enough to get Thursday, Friday, and Saturday off while they kept cranking it out.

Now that I’ve been able to absorb this style a bit, I’ve decided that I really love it for its extremely simple sets and focus on “the word.” Throughout the show, staging consisted of little more than chairs and Chinese scroll paintings. The ponds, gardens, rivers, and other exotic settings referred to in the text? They are solely the product of the viewer’s imagination, as activated by the performer describing the scene. The costumes were gorgeous, to be sure, but it was really the lines, spoken and sung, that made this show come to life. Tang Xianzu’s poetry was gorgeous. It’s for this reason that I think the first night was the best of all. Part two was the most fun, with its scene set in hell and seductive lady ghost, but nothing equalled the poetry of Du Liniang in the first evening. Despite the fact this was also the longest night and I felt sure one of the scenes could have been entirely removed, this was the night I ultimately found most moving.

Afterwards we went to The Charles Lamb pub (one of my favorites in London – sure wish it was my local!) to chat about what we’d just experienced, and, lo and behold! We found an article about the show in The Sunday Times. Read and enjoy!

As a footnote, I’m probably going to be taking it pretty easy theatrically for the rest of this month. Wait, that’s a lie – I’m going to see Romersholm Thursday, Marguerite the Musical Friday, and The Revenger’s Tragedy on Saturday, and possibly two more shows on Wednesday and Sunday if I can get tickets. Ah, what a short memory I have!

(This review is for a performance that took place Sunday, June th, 2008, one of the most lovely sunny weekend days in recent memory.)

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One Response to “Review of “The Peony Pavilion” -下本- part three (”Reunion and Triumph”) – Suzhou Kunqu Opera company – Sadler’s Wells”

  1. Jenny Man Says:

    I lived in Sydney and I have seen the VCD of the show but still waiting for someone to bring the show to downunder. As an audience who have seen some five to six Du Liniang, I found it hard to say Shen is the best, though she is very pretty. One of the most amusing part I found is the nun complaining her born defect that deprived her the joy of sex. I cannot imagine how the show was allowed in Tang’s time? It’s would be interesting to imagine that it gave the audience, mostly educated and elite class of that time, the joy of forbidden sex, a sixteenth century version of reading pronography web. However I do agree that the author of the play is the true star of the show.

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