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.


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)