Arts: A long meditation about love

Double Take: Paul Taylor and Nick Kimberley on Peter Sellars's production of Peony Pavilion

WHOSE SHOW is it anyway? Peony Pavilion presents scenes from a 16th-century Shanghai opera by Tang Xianzu, in Cyril Birch's highly rhetorical translation, staged by the American, Peter Sellars, with music by the contemporary Chinese composer, Tan Dun. Each has a stake in the production, as have the designers of set (George Tsypin), costume (Dunya Ramicova) and sound (Janet Kalas). More than most theatrical productions, Peony Pavilion derives its coherence, and occasional incoherence, from the unity of these collaborative elements.

If Tang Xianzu would recognise its relationship with his original, so much the better. Historically informed re-creation has its place (in a museum), but Sellars and Tan, the project's main instigators, have something different in mind.

Their Peony Pavilion is a drama in two acts, the first fusing Western spoken theatre with the sing-speech, song and dance of Chinese opera (kunqu), as reinvented by Tan; the second retaining those elements, but roughing them up through contact with Tan's notions of contemporary opera, a melange in which West and East, ancient and modern, are not polar opposites, but contiguous points.

It could all go horribly wrong, but it's bound by a strong narrative thread: a girl, Du Liniang, is immersed in an erotic reverie that takes physical shape when the student Liu Mengmei seduces her. The two pursue each other through dream-worlds and, when Du dies, beyond the grave. Like Prince Charming, Liu rescues her from death's domain, and they escape together.

A simple enough story, but its telling carries a real sensual charge, not least because we observe three Lius, and three Dus engage in very different dramatic rituals; and that observation is achieved in part through no fewer than 18 TV screens embedded within Tsypin's set.

Tan Dun once played in a Chinese opera pit-band, and his re-imagining of ancient style cuts to the emotional quick. Then, in the almost free- standing opera that is Part Two, he lets rip. His orchestra (visible throughout) expands from a trio of pipa, fiddle and percussion, to include a rock drummer, midi horns, flute, and the unearthly wail of the Korean piri.

The cast is augmented by two full-out bel canto signers, Ying Huang (Du) and Lin Qiang Xu (Liu), whose operatic demeanour raises the dramatic temperature yet again. Flitting throughout, the composer's own disembodied voice, pre-recorded, howls shamanistically. That conductor Steven Osgood holds it together is a small miracle of musical empathy. Although its elements are distinct and recognisable, Peony Pavilion shapes them into something wild, frequently wonderful and quite new.

NK

THE VIDEO monitors, suspended between sheets of glass at various angles and in an assortment of sizes, glow with pure colour and have the look of an enchanted swarm of tropical fish. The last time a Peter Sellars production visited the Barbican, the rows of monitors looming over the stalls relayed footage of the LA riots. This was The Merchant of Venice, relocated to Venice Beach, California. In Peony Pavilion, his latest project, the images on the screens tend to be more delicate, peaceful - a drift of petals in water, a feather swaying in slow motion close-up; a sudden flush of apricot. This is a 16th-century Chinese classic of the Kun tradition (part theatre, part opera) seen through hi-tech 20th-century eyes.

A meditation on the nature of love, Tang Xianzu's celebrated drama recounts the fortunes of Du Liniang, a 16-year-old girl who has to go through extraordinary preliminary stages before she is properly united with the man she loves. She meets him first in an erotic dream, then, after she has died of longing, as a ghost. It is only when he defeats death by raising her from the grave that they meet as mortals and equals.

Sellars' production juxtaposes different theatrical traditions. In the first half, the lovers are played simultaneously by two couples - a pair of Kunqu artists (Hua Wenyi and Jason Ma) enact a courtship of shy, stylised mirroring-movements, while two young Americans (Lauren Tom and Joel de la Fuente) emote naturalistically and with miked voices into hand-held cameras. They are always ready for their close up, Mr De Mille.

In Part Two, when the turbulent culture clashes in Tan Dun's arresting score commence (Tibetan chants overlaid with rock drumming et al), this foursome is joined by a rapturously haunted soprano (Ying Huang) and a tenor, Lin Qiang Xu, whose voice can perform startling vertical take-offs that produce an absolutely delirious falsetto.

Conveying a strong sense of the elemental, not withstanding all the gadgetry, the production offers a beautifully limpid vision of the sensuality and romantic lyricism of this myth. As with a great deal of Sellars' work, there's a dreaded lack of spontaneity and the first, shorter half, feels terribly slow. But anyone who found his LA riots Merchant and Gulf War Persians offensive in their political fatuousness can be reassured that this show is refreshingly free from editorialising. It's a Peter Sellars production that can be liked by those who don't normally like Peter Sellars.

Further performances 6.30pm 10-12, 14-16, 18-19 September, 3pm 20 September, Barbican Theatre, Silk St, EC2 (0171-638 8891)

PT

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones