The Legend of White Snake – China National Peking Opera Company: Peacock Theatre, London, 14 October 2016

Here I go again

Good golly, nice brolly. China National Peking Opera Company in The Legend of White Snake

Good golly, nice brolly. China National Peking Opera Company in The Legend of White Snake

Xu Xian doesn’t know what he’s letting himself in for when he falls for a beautiful woman he meets by a lake. It turns out she’s actually a 1000 year-old snake-spirit with a penchant for devouring her husbands. Fortunately for him it transpires that she truly loves him but it’s a somewhat hazardous journey involving Divine Mushrooms, Heavenly Guards and power-crazed Buddhist monks to find that out.

The Legend of White Snake is a famous piece of Chinese folklore and China National Peking Opera Company’s adaptation is blindingly good. The singing may an acquired taste to most Western ears but there’s no denying its quality. Far more accessible are the dazzling costumes, the slapstick comedy and, above all, the acrobatics and dancing.

Everything appears choreographed, from the precision in how the characters walk to the delicate use of arms and fingers. And the eyes! The eyes are overwhelming; deeply expressive and absolutely the emotional core of the piece.

Most spectacular are the acrobatics. The tumbling and sword-play is stunning and there are no words available to describe the extraordinary nature of the big battle scene in the second half. Also, if you’ve ever wanted to see someone fall flat on their back like a plank of wood, this is the show for you.

The White Snake character is a consistently ambiguous role but Li Shengsu makes her a highly sympathetic woman caught between her goddess status and her human desires. Liu Lei’s Xu Xian is a bit of a lily-livered sort but he’s a likeable chap despite his numerous frailties.

Best of all is Dai Zhongyu. She plays Green Snake, the hot-headed sister of White Snake, and not only does she act brilliantly and sing magnificently but she’s also an astonishing acrobat and dancer. In one incredible scene she’s juggling and kicking away three-foot long lances being thrown at her from around the stage. Volleys, back-heels, overhead kicks – Lionel Messi has nothing on this lady.

I absolutely loved The Legend of White Snake. It’s just so precise, well-performed and goddamn entertaining. Hao!

China National Peking Opera Company are at the Peacock Theatre in London until 15 October 2016. Tickets for The Legend of White Snake and also for The General and the Prime Minister are available on the Peacock Theatre website.

Gerard Davis

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