Hao to the China National Peking Opera Company – a review of A River All Red

Sadler’s Wells said ni hao to China’s renowned theatre company, the China National Peking Opera, who returned to the London stage and performed A River All Red.

The plot, suitably gladiator-esque in style, followed the attempts of general Yui Fe, to protect the Song Dynasty against the Jin Dynasty invasion. Yet, set against a backdrop of betrayal, a theme which resonated throughout the masterpiece, Yiu Fe was manipulated by the Song’s chancellor QinHui, a spy from the Jin Dynasty, into peace negotiations. The tale, based on a true story from 1140, followed this conflict in a performance so immersive it was easy to believe you had been transported to the banks of the Yellow River, itself, as opposed to being a stone’s throw away from the Thames.

From the exposition to the denouement of the narrative, the lead performers, Yu Kuizhi, Li Shengsu and Hu Bin, effortlessly owned the stage, while captivating the audience’s attention. The modest set, was more than compensated for by the performers’ mesmering costumes, whose weight appeared not to trouble them. They made light work of the acrobatics, song and fighting scenes – elements which give the Peking Opera its name and differentiate it from its Western relative.

Although, performed entirely in the ancient Chinese dialact of Changbai, a cultural unfamiliarity which could wrong-foot even the most seasoned Thespian, the use of surtitles allowed the audience to follow the plot without difficulty. This was coupled with the music of the Peking Opera, Ban Qiang in style, which was strangely mesmering, and complemented the narrative’s dramatic structure without fail.

Yet, when looking beyond the brightly coloured and beautifully choreographed veneer and more closely at the performance itself, the real pearl of the oyster is revealed. Every detail of the work is steeped in symbolism – from the colours of the masks worn by the performers, to the way in which they stroked their beards. Each action tells a story and embellishes the scene in a way which takes it to a new level, and makes it so much more than the simple recounting of an ancient conflict.

Without doubt, the two-hour long spectacle is unmissable, and pays testament to the performers’ six years of gruelling training. The vivacious costumes, melodic soundtrack and faultless acting, make reading surtitles less of a chore, and more of a pleasure. You’ll have no difficulty, too, in joining in clapping and shouting hao (bravo) during the performance, a practice which is encouraged in Peking Opera.

More information can be found here.

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