Monkey: Journey to the West, Royal Opera House, London

Simon O'Hagan
Friday 25 July 2008 00:00

It's not often that London has to wait this long to witness a show as renowned and spectacular as Monkey: Journey to the West, and the delay seems all the more surprising given that composer Damon Albarn has the city in his blood, and that it's home to his co-creator Jamie Hewlett, too.

Then again it's a measure of the extent to which Manchester has become a player on the worldwide cultural stage that it was there that Monkey, a stunning re-working of a mythic tale from 16th-century China, premiered last year as part of the Manchester International Festival. It has since played in Paris and at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston in the United States.

Monkey's appearance at the Royal Opera House, where seven performances are being squeezed into four days, came at relatively short notice, and there was little build-up of hype. So there was no doubting the authenticity of the buzz in the foyer on opening night. It was, for once, a warm summer's evening. The venue was the most prestigious of its kind, and this was truly an event. Those in possession of a ticket could be forgiven for feeling a bit pleased with themselves.

Albarn and Hewlett occupy a special place on the contemporary cultural scene. Eventually when you can do no wrong, people start to mind, but it hasn't happened yet with the dazzlingly gifted ex-Blur man and the visual genius with whom he has formed such a formidable collaboration, and on the strength of Monkey's latest outing, it's not going to any time soon. These two guys are proof that being brilliant is much the quickest route to being cool.

Monkey is in many ways a natural extension of what Albarn and Hewlett created with Gorillaz, the first "virtual" band, and their colossally successful album Demon Days. Combining both grandeur and intimacy, exquisite melody and thrilling soundscapes, it was Albarn's remarkable score, played by an orchestra using both Western and traditional Chinese instruments, that gave Monkey its real emotional depth. But it was just one element in a show, performed in Mandarin, that left almost no genre untouched and whose scale of ambition could only be marvelled at.

Circus, opera, rhythmic gymnastics, acrobatics, martial arts, ballet, animation – it was all there on a night when Hewlett provided one visual feast after another and a 40-strong, all-Chinese cast gave a series of staggering performances, many of them airborne. It was Pixar meets Chinese State Circus, and the combination was unforgettable.

For Albarn and Hewlett, the germ of the Monkey idea lay in the cult TV series of the same name that they'd watched as children. For Chen Shi-Zheng, who conceived, wrote and directed the stage show, Monkey was much closer to home. He grew up during the Cultural Revolution, when the story was banned, and his illicit discovery of it only strengthened the hold it took on his imagination. Coming at it from their different directions, all three believed it had the makings of something, and so it has proved.

The details of Monkey's epic journey to deliver scriptures to an Indian god and thereby achieve salvation need not detain us, and if the show had a fault it was in a slight loss of narrative drive about halfway through. Meanwhile, the bigger story was an age-old one of good triumphing over evil (even if a "Buddha of victorious battles" seems something of a contradiction in terms, if I've understood that religion correctly) with a clear post-globalisation message. The planet's really a very small place and we are all related.

As Monkey, Fei Yang combined incredible physical dexterity with enormous expressiveness, and from any number of breathtaking set-pieces you could take your pick. Mine would be the underwater scene in which giant starfish floated in mid-air to the accompaniment of a sublime passage of choral music. This was one Monkey to go ape over.

Ends tomorrow (020-7304 4000)

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