In narrative terms, The Peony Pavilion asks a lot of its audience – this has to be the first time I’ve watched a show where the main protagonist dies in the middle without any indication that she is now deceased. I’m guessing its assumed that you’re familiar with the original 1598 20-hour long Kunqu opera which, unlike the rest of the world, most Chinese people are. Either that or the singing role of Kunqu Liniang is a narrator of vital plot developments although that’s not a great deal of use for a mono-lingual reprobate like me when she’s singing in untranslated Chinese.
The consequence of this was that I didn’t have a clue what was going on. It was obviously some kind of love story but beyond that, it was up for grabs. Reading the synopsis afterwards was a bit of an eye-opener but, you know what? It didn’t really matter. Visually speaking The Peony Pavilion is absolutely stunning and can virtually be viewed as a full-length abstract piece.
Choreographer Fei Bo has a truly remarkable eye for spectacle that was made apparent right from the off as small groups women dressed in white slotted serenely around the stage to the sensual tones of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. It looked gorgeous and set a precedent of tying the choreography in tightly with the eclectic range of music being played. While individual movement was not always the strongest, the ensemble sequences were invariably exquisite and beautifully composed.
Allied to that were the highly stylised designs of Michael Simon. There was minimal use of props and barely any backdrop to speak of but the lack of clutter was wonderfully arranged and distinctly contemporary. Emi Wada’s costumes, for the most part, were magnificent, especially Kunqu Liniang’s flowing robes, although the main dancing role of Du Liniang was let down by her rather drab jump-suit.
The two leads were a mixed pair. Zhu Yan’s Du Liniang was a severe young lady whose expression, both facially and bodily, varied little whether in the throes of joy or in the ebbs of despair. Her lover, Liu Mengmei, on the other hand, was a much more interesting character and Ma Xiaodong portrayed him with a delicacy rare for a male dancer that produced several solos of extraordinary tenderness.
The corps were razor-sharp, especially the women, but the stand-out performer was Jia Pengfei, the Chinese Opera singer who roamed the stage and captivated wherever she went. The all-too-brief moment where she sang alone on the stage was heart-breaking, even without knowing what she was saying.
The Peony Pavilion had me completely hooked. Don’t worry too much about the story, just go with the flow and let your eyes delight in the visual feast that unfolds in front of you. That way, the two (count ‘em!) petal falls will look even prettier.
National Ballet of China’s The Peony Pavilion runs at Sadler’s Wells until 3 December 2016. For tickets, go to the Sadler’s Wells website.