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Monkey: Journey to the West

Gordo delivers a verdict on the International Festival’s blockbuster as he gets lost on his way to a restaurant

Written by . Published on July 3rd 2007.

Monkey: Journey to the West

The Manchester International Festival’s marketing team don’t think much of Gordo. He tends to speak his mind.

But that’s a story for another day, Gordo thought as he made his way to the Palace Theatre.

The place was looking great and was full to the rafters with the great, the good and in the case of Council Leader Sir Richard Leese, the tricky. We were all wondering what to expect, would the great gamble, the big moment of Manchester International Festival pay off?

The theatre was full to the rafters with the great, the good and in the case of Council Leader Sir Richard Leese, the tricky. We were all wondering would the great gamble, the big moment of Manchester International Festival pay off?

But before I let you out of your misery a tip. Keep an open mind, but make sure you know the legend of the Monkey King, it will help you with the storyline. It might all be Chinese otherwise - the sub-titles can leave you guessing. Therefore the programme is well worth putting your hand in your pocket for and then reading before curtain’s up. From that point on, you’re on your own.

Chinese Opera (which this isn’t really, but kind of is), depends on more than the spoken, or sung word to get its story across. Theatre troupes travelling China over the past few millennia found themselves performing in front of audiences whose dialects were unfathomable and therefore had to tell their complex stories, such as the fantastic ‘Legend of the White Snake’ (nothing to do with the soft-rock band folks) by other means. These involved facial expressions, highly stylized body language, mime and acrobatics supplemented by sung and dialogue. You can see that Fei Yang, who plays Monkey in the excellent cast, has been through classical Chinese training. Every scratch of his crotch, every snide comment, each time his scally mind snaps we all instantly understand. This guy is sheer class.

Tripitaka, the young, pure Buddhist virgin monk who Monkey has to guard on his journey to bring the holy scriptures back to China is played by Yao Ningning, a lovely looking young woman who knows exactly how to put across Tripitaka’s naivety. Yet with each step and expression the audience knows full well that this is a youngster as street wise as Little Red Riding Hood. Monkey and his friends are going to have a hard time.

Everything here works, with some funny moments; the sweetest starfish flapping her way around the stage, underwater. You will understand what I mean, believe me, if you go. Then wait until you see the Spider Woman. By the gods she’s worth leaving home for and Gordo can’t help but sympathise with Pigsy for running after the sexiest girls you will ever see on stage, deserting his charge when Monkey gets banished for a while. The whole thing is thoroughly enjoyable. And accessible to everyone. Eight brilliant scenes with only the ninth and last being a bit of a dogs dinner.

A couple of years ago Salford and the Lowry Theatre had the honour of hosting the National Beijing Opera Company on their first tour ever abroad. And they sent their best troupe. They’re coming back in 08. Get tickets as soon as you can if you enjoyed Journey to the West.

Mao and his Missus had a very good try at destroying thousands of years of Chinese culture. What we might have missed is apparent when you watch Chen Shi-Zheng, the director, weave Damon Albarn’s music and Jamie Hewlett’s visuals into a story that is over 400 years old. And make it a hit, because that is what this is.

Well done to MIF as well. We may have our differences, but you’ve delivered the goods. Next time, let’s tell the locals eh? And even get them involved.

Monkey is at the Palace Theatre until Saturday 7 July. Although you might be lucky to get a ticket try the festival website or 0871 230 1888.

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