In 1598, at the very moment William Shakespeare was sitting down to pen Romeo and Juliet, a Ming dynasty mandarin called Tang Xianzu was composing the most celebrated epic of Chinese Kun opera. How could he know what a gift that timing would be to the Barbican's marketing department? Yet, in the light of Peter Sellars's hugely ambitious reworking of the Chinese masterpiece, the comparison is largely unhelpful. Yes, here is a tale of young love and untimely death, a poetic text laden with metaphysical imagery. But there any accessible parallel ends. might have been made on Mars for all its alienating strangeness; and rather than draw us in to share its secrets by exposing the art in its purest form, Sellars dissipates its power in a global soup of multimedia mayhem.
The story itself, which runs like Romeo and Juliet in reverse, is pretty straightforward. A 16-year-old girl has a dream in which she meets her ideal lover. Faced with empty reality, she goes on hunger strike and dies. Three years later, a student has a similar dream, visits the garden of her shrine and unwittingly summons her ghost. They make love, and have agreed to marry before she drops the bombshell that she is actually dead. To revive her, he must take a shovel and dig up the corpse. They live happily ever after.
Whatever this narrative manages to suggest to a modern Western audience - of the power of imagination over cold reality, of love over death - one can only assume it meant a thousand times more to one steeped in Confucian values. At one point, the heroine lets slip, "Just think, I might have had to wait until another life to meet the man of my dreams". Which opens up possibilities undreamt of by Shakespeare's star-cross'd pair. And the dramatic pace, which is irksomely slow, would presumably have posed no problem to an audience attuned to the subtle inflexions of this operatic style, which strikes the Western ear as a modulated exchange between cats on heat. One long duet, delivered in Chinese with subtitles, appears to hinge entirely on a discussion about the household laundry. "No need of incense-aired brocaded covers to entice slumber," the maid informs her mistress, several times and at length. It was at about this point in the three-and-a-half-hour show that you noticed a discreet thinning in the stalls.
Anticipating this cultural difficulty, the director offers a kind of contemporary visual translation, which for the first half runs alongside the traditional drama. An American actress gives us a typical lovesick teenager, sprawling about the floor, flipping through magazines and examining her face for spots. The inscrutable, flowery hand-movements of the 400-year-old version (which, along with the movement of the eyes, convey a great deal to the initiated) find a parallel in soliloquies delivered to a hand-held camcorder. This image - wobbly, big-nosed, home-video stuff - is then relayed and multiplied on a plethora of screens of various sizes dotted about the set.
This might have worked better were it not for Cyril Birch's odd text translation, which juxtaposes the jarringly mundane ("Are you all right, Miss Du?") with unwieldy, obscure passages of poeticising ("Spirit so determined, by whose side do you walk in fragrant world?"). Birch presumably had his reasons for this stiltedness, but they eluded me. An additional irritation was the American pronunciation of key words. The waxy petals of "the appricart" were referred to several times before I twigged what they were.
Tan Dun, the Chinese avant-garde refusenik now sealed in America, provides a spare, traditional accompaniment to the Kun-opera episodes using oriental lute, flute and melancholy fiddle. Though exquisite on first hearing, the limited melodic and tonal spectrum soon palls. Was I mistaken or did some tunes crop up several times? At any rate, by half-time we are desperate to hear something new - and we do. All hell is let loose in a free-form splurge: bursts of heavy-rock drumming, a prerecorded chorus of Gregorian chant, snatches of Indian rhythmic speech, modern extended vocal techniques, and what sounds like Elvis Presley gargling. Kind of fun ... for the first half hour. In part two of Sellars's vision, musical forms take over. The two pairs of protagonists (traditional and modern-style) from the first half continue to act out the plot, while a pair of singers take the limelight for duets of straining and swooping and yelling impossible consonants on very high notes. The single highlight - an oasis of relative good humour - was a clever bit of vocal counterpoint which mimicked the oohs and aahs of energetic sex.
At best, is a sincere attempt by the director to show the vitality of an ancient theatrical tradition far removed from our own. At worst, it's a modish assault on that tradition's integrity. As for Sellars's trumpetings about this extravagant project - "sexually explicit ... socially incisive ... rampant with metaphor", it was none of these things. Yet despite this, perhaps because of it, some of us came away curious to know more about the Ming period and its strange rituals and romance.
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