Review of the opera Monkey: Journey to the West– Royal Opera House

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NOTE: This show is being remounted from November 8th until December 5th at “Monkey’s World,” near the Millenium Dome. Number to call is 0844 847 1665 – which is probably Ticketmaster or something. More info here.)

What is the point in reviewing a sold out show? It can’t influence anyone to go, since it’s not possible; for those who’ve made the commitment, any critique isn’t much welcomed; for those who’ve had no luck getting tickets, praise simply rubs the salt in the wound. But with its back history for me (a year long build up!), Monkey still must have its time in the sun – and space online.

Ever since I read about the opera version of Monkey: Journey to the West I’ve been burning with desire to go. I read the book in college (as part of my Chinese lit studies), then went on to see many versions of it – marionette (at the Northwest Puppet Center in Seattle), animated, Kabuki (in Tokyo, an excellent show at the Kabuki-za), shadow puppet – it’s just an incredibly popular tale. (Sadly I never caught the t.v. show, but since it wasn’t shown in the US, I think that’s to be expected.) I am a fan of the Monkey King and I love to watch his big blazing ego wreaking havoc, especially if there is a little bit of kung-fu involved. And even though I thought I knew the story, every time I watch it seems there’s another aspect of the fairy tale I’ve missed out on. There are, it seems, an endless number of demons to be fought and gods of both heaven and hell waiting to have their noses tweaked, and Monkey does it all with panache. Who wouldn’t want to see his tale told on stage?

Unfortunately, last year’s performances all took place while I was off at a family reunion, so there was no way for me to see it, to my regret. However, when the Royal Opera put a teensy tiny ad on their site saying they were going to be presenting it this summer, I was all over it – signed up on the email list and waiting, waiting, and checking for news of when the show would happen. The day the tickets went on sale, I had already rounded up a group to go (though I could only buy four tickets), and I jumped when the bell rang to queue (online of course). At any rate – we got seats, ones I could almost afford (at £35 each in the balcony – quite steep and as it turns out with a blocked view of the climax of one of the two best scenes), and then just had to wait until the day finally rolled around.

Yesterday was, at long last, the day. What was I expecting? All I really knew is that it was going to be bright and shiny and had design work by the guy who’d done Tank Girl (Jamie Hewlett). I’d forgotten it was sung in Mandarin (a big plus for me but probably not so awesome for the youngest members of the audience) but I’d also forgotten that it was going to have lots of martial arts (yay!). In addition, there were lots of traditional Chinese performance arts on display, such as plate balancing, cloth spinning, and balancing/acrobatics. There were also what I think as more Western-style circus performances, such as rope suspension (like trapeze work – I don’t know exactly what it’s called) and a contortionist. Really, it was a smorgasborg of shiny fun things to look at, and the sets were big and “wow” (except for the part where from at least row G on up in the upper amphitheater you couldn’t see the occasional top fifth of the stage, meaning Buddha’s head was cut off in the final scene and when Monkey was fighting Princess Iron Fan, I was utterly unable to see how he won the fight). I was, however, not expecting the show to run straight through with no intermission; fortunately I heard the annoucement beforehand and was able to make a dash for the ladies’ before I went in the auditorium.

The show was pretty fun. I especially enjoyed the scene in the underwater palace of the Dragon King and the, er, lair of the “Spider Queen” slash web women (in which women acrobats were hanging from the ceiling from red silk scarves trying to trap the pilgrims in their web/cloth and thus luring them into sexual misdeeds – apparently done as a movie by the Shaw brothers in the 60s). However …

For a show with so much buildup, it may have been impossible to satify my expectations. That said, I found the narrative incoherent and saw little connections between the major sections of the show. This meant each section needed to be brilliant on its own, and most of them were quite fun to watch … but without the pieces knitting together, you are denied the opportunity to create a greater whole. The effect is more like watching a bunch of music videos.

Furthermore, while the Monkey King is funny and irritating, why isn’t there more to the characterization of his companions? Really, why should we care about whether or not he helps Tripitaka? His companions Pigsy and Sandy were just ciphers and had almost no sense of personality at all, and while Sandy wasn’t much in the book, Pigsy was a real character and certainly deserved more than he got.

I also just hated the clumsy scene transitions. Whether it was the animated movies, which detracted from the possibility of using this time to develop the characters/story more and also cut of major opportunities to do theatrical magic (and gave me horrible flashbacks to being stuck at the crummy Fa Lun Gung “Chinese Arts Spectacular”), or the times when things just stopped dead and we got to watch people move stuff on stage (how anticlimactic! how secret-revealing!), this bit seemed incredibly unpolished, especially given that it’s been touring in China and America.

Overall, I found this an enjoyable evening, but my enjoyment was limited by the poor sight lines my £35 seats offered (which could and should have been designed around, that’s what technical rehearsal is for) and, er, this bit where the magic just wasn’t happening for me. It was fun and exciting and much more entertaining than opera normally is (and in terms of providing a spectacle, this show really succeeded – I can’t remember the last time I was so caught up in the action on stage I didn’t bother reading the supertitles), but as a work of art, as something that might be the least bit emotionally moving, it was a failure, which was kind of sad.

(This review is for a show that took place on Thursday, July 24th.)

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One Response to “Review of the opera Monkey: Journey to the West– Royal Opera House”

  1. “Monkey - Journey to the West” two for one offer - and deal on “August: Osage County” - both deals ending December 23 « Webcowgirl’s Theatre Reviews Says:

    […] deals on two shows I thought were worth sharing. First, Monkey: Journey to the West (which I saw in July at the Opera House and enjoyed) has two for one tickets if you quote “Xmas 2 for 1″ when you all 0844 847 […]

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