Adapted from a traditional Chinese story by James Fenton
Directed by Gregory Doran
Venue: Swan Theatre
Date: Wednesday 31st October 2012
This was amazing, and only their second performance! The house wasn’t full but we did our best to be appreciative at the end, calling them back on for a second set of bows. And they deserved it. This is another dynastic difficulties piece, similar to A Soldier In Every Son, but thankfully the names were easier to pronounce. A corrupt emperor, an ambitious captain of the guard who arranges to become the emperor’s chief minister, a loyal minister forced to commit suicide leaving his pregnant wife defenceless (although she’s the emperor’s daughter so killing her is out of the question) and an orphan boy who grows up not knowing who his real father is nor the destiny he has to fulfil. That’s the short version; now read on.
The set was wonderfully simple and evocative. Chinese style fretwork delineated the circular arches – one large one at the back and smaller ones round the side balcony openings. Four large Chinese lanterns hung above the stage, and apart from the severed heads being lowered down and a few items of furniture being brought on and off, that was it. The costumes were also in the Chinese style, including some of the elaborate headdresses, but thankfully the music had been seriously westernised – I have no desire to attune my ears to the sound of traditional Chinese music. And although there were several in the cast of Asian descent, there were no problems with heavy foreign accents, which gave the play the best possible chance for a British audience.
The performance began with a character called the ballad-singer. His opening number was a long song which conveyed the idea of grief and suffering without being specific about the story we were going to see. During the song the other characters processed onto the stage, taking up their positions round the outside and facing inwards for the end of the song. The cast then left the stage to Tu’An Gu, the villain of the piece, superbly played by Joe Dixon. He had us laughing within a very few minutes as he described the frustration he felt at not being the clear top dog amongst the Emperor’s advisors. Speaking of dogs, he had one to show us, a huge mastiff which he had trained to attack anyone wearing a purple robe. The dog was a puppet and looked really vicious, although it was quite sweet when it cuddled up to Tu’An Gu, even if he had to shove its muzzle out of his crotch a couple of times.
Having explained his dastardly plans to us, we were then introduced to the three honourable ministers, one of whom, Zhao Dun, wore a purple robe. Oh dear. They were following an old yearly tradition of going out to the peasants to encourage them in their farming, but had to do without the Emperor’s help as this incumbent was only interested in pleasure of every kind. His Peach Gardens had been built by Tu’An Gu as the location for all this fun, and within it the new Crimson Cloud Tower rose high above the ground. From here, the Emperor informed us, the people looked like ants, so he decided to use them for target practice. The first arrow stuck in the middle of the stage but the rest of the shots missed the audience completely, although from the descriptions, the people in the Peach Gardens were being killed unmercifully by the lunatic ruler. Zhao Dun rushed back on, exclaiming against the slaughter, and Tu’An Gu tried to use his rash statements against him. He didn’t quite manage it, but the senseless killing so upset the three good ministers that one of them retired, one sent himself into exile, guarding the country’s borders, while Zhao Dun stayed in the court – bad move.
After a failed assassination attempt – the assassin killed himself rather than execute such a noble man as Zhao Dun – Zhao Dun tried to accuse Tu’An Gu of the attempt but was brought down by the mastiff which naturally ran straight for the purple robe which Zhao Dun was wearing. Zhao Dun’s servant tried to help him, stabbing the mastiff in the process, but his master was eventually found in his own garden and given a choice of three suicide methods – poison, dagger and bowstring. He chose the dagger and showed his courage by killing himself. His wife, the princess, was kept prisoner in her palace to wait for the baby to be born, and the rest of the Zhao clan were executed. And if you’re worried about the mastiff, it was put out of its misery by Tu’An Gu, poor thing.
With a baby on the way, a country doctor, Cheng Ying, was sent for – none of the regular doctors would take the risk – and he came along next and introduced himself to us. In his discussion with the palace guard he learned of the severed heads, and the guard was already picking out the spot where he would hang Cheng Ying’s head if he was given the task of executing him. Cheng Ying was eventually shown in to see the princess and discovered that she was no longer pregnant as she’d had the baby during the night. She entrusted it to Cheng Ying and made him promise to take care of him, bring him up and teach him of his heritage so that he could avenge the wrong done to the Zhao clan.
The next section was a bit complicated, but it boiled down to this: to save the orphan of Zhao, Cheng Ying substituted his own baby boy for the orphan and placed his son with one of the exiled ministers, Gongsun Chujiu. Cheng Ying then ‘betrayed’ this minister, with his connivance, to Tu’An Gu so that Tu’An Gu would kill the baby believing it to be the orphan. Cheng Ying would then be free to raise the orphan as his own boy, but fate had another twist in store for the lad.
Tu’An Gu was so pleased with Cheng Ying for leading him to the orphan of Zhao, as he thought, that he offered to adopt Cheng Ying’s son (the real orphan of Zhao) as his heir. He would bring the boy up to learn the martial arts, while Cheng Ying would teach him medicine. The self-sacrifice of both Gongsun Chujiu and Cheng Ying himself was remarkable, although his wife’s point of view was different. She wanted to save her son and have the real orphan returned to the court no matter what happened to him. Eventually she realised that all the children were in danger, as a decree had been issued that all young boys would be killed if the orphan wasn’t found – sound familiar? Even so, she was damaged by the actual exchange of one baby for the other, and we learned later that she died of sorrow.
The final scene of the first half showed us General Wei Jiang, the other exiled minister, who brought us up-to-date. Eighteen years had passed since he left the court and he was now on the furthest edge of the Emperor’s lands, constantly fighting against the enemy. A young man was brought to him, a student of medicine who was collecting rare plants and who had a message for the general: the Emperor was dying, and the general was needed back at court. Although the young man wasn’t introduced to us or the general, we realised he was the orphan of Zhao, and fortunately the general liked his attitude so took good care of him. The first half ended with the general considering his next moves and the risk he took if he went back to the court too soon.
The second half opened with another song, this time about the orphan Cheng Bo’s coming of age. He was given his bow and arrows and set off to do some hunting while his supposed biological father, Cheng Ying, decided to give him one more day as a carefree child without knowing his true identity. However in the next scene Cheng Ying was spotted by the returning general Wei Jiang, who considered him a traitor for giving away the hiding place of the orphan of Zhao and getting his friend Gongsun Chujiu killed as well. His soldiers gave Cheng Ying a good beating, but he managed to tell the general that he knew a secret which must not die with him, and so the general listened to him for a while. Cheng Ying told him the situation, that the orphan was alive and only he knew his identity. The general finally believed him, and was amazed to find he had already met the orphan himself (I think the sniffles started about now).
Cheng Bo himself came forward next to tell us his story. The journey to give General Wei Jiang the message (and to gather the plants) had changed the young man completely. From a relative innocent who loved both of his fathers equally, he had come to realise that there was much suffering in the country, and a lot of it was either caused by Tu’An Gu and the Emperor or allowed to flourish due to their indifference to good government. An interesting paragraph in the text has been cut for performance, but it explains how the tax system had been corrupted so that the ordinary people were suffering exorbitant penalties while the Emperor still only got his regular income. I don’t know why they cut it – maybe taxation isn’t a popular enough subject – but it helped me understand the situation better afterwards.
Tu’An Gu had a short speech next before joining his son on a hunting expedition. The horses were two actors who held the bridle end of the reins in their hands while father and son rode on. After Cheng Bo shot two geese with one arrow, they dismounted and held on to the reins of their horses. The bridle ends were held higher this time, to reflect their position relative to their horses, and every so often one or other ‘horse’ would snort and shake its head – not quite War Horse but still pretty good.
In retrieving the geese, Cheng Bo entered the garden of his mother’s palace where she was still being kept prisoner. He spoke with the guard and with her, briefly, but it was enough to give him some troubling thoughts. On his return to the horses, he lied to his second father for the first time, which Tu’An Gu immediately spotted.
Back in the capital, the Emperor gave Wei Jiang his imperial seal, effectively putting him in charge. The Emperor spoke to the general from behind a wispy curtain, which was held up on poles by two servants. Every so often the Emperor would walk through the curtain to speak to Wei Jiang directly, and it was interesting to see the choices here. Then came the difficult scene where Cheng Ying told Cheng Bo of his true identity. Prompted by the ghost of Gongsun Chujiu, Cheng Ying started to paint a scroll telling of the events which happened in the Peach Gardens all those years ago. Cheng Bo joined him, and while the full details weren’t exposed on the scroll yet, Cheng Bo was able to reveal that he suspected he wasn’t Cheng Ying’s son, and this led to the exposure of his true identity.
Wei Jiang accosted the captain of the guard and ensured his cooperation. Cheng Bo paid another visit to his mother and it seemed he received her blessing, and then came the climax of the play – the revenge of the many Zhao clan ghosts against the man who had had them killed – Tu’An Gu. He was standing in the audience room, doing up his shirt, while guards and others rushed about, ignoring him. He tried to get hold of the captain of the guard, but not only did the other guards ignore him, one of them went up to him and slapped him in the face, followed by another. He realised that power was slipping from his grasp, but he didn’t yet know that it was already safely tucked up in another’s bed.
Cheng Bo came on and stood still, just looking at him. Tu’An Gu naturally assumed that Cheng Bo was still on his side and gave him instructions about organising the guards etc. However Cheng Bo stayed where he was to begin with, and when he did move it was to set out the three suicide options for Tu’An Gu. It was clearly difficult for Tu’An Gu to realise what was going on, and even when he did he couldn’t bring himself to kill Cheng Bo, despite having the opportunity. He also couldn’t bring himself to commit suicide, so Cheng Bo had to help him. The general and the Princess arrived, and the revenge scene ended with the Princess holding Cheng Bo as the ballad-singer sang of the dead calling to him while the ghosts walked along the outer edge of the auditorium and on to the stage.
The final scene was the saddest of the lot, but a very fitting ending all the same. Cheng Ying stumbled through a graveyard to find the resting place of his true son’s body. The ghost of that son, now grown up, talked with him, and accused him of hating his son. He denied it; he had always loved his son. But the ghost said he had always loved the orphan of Zhao. Cheng Ying was only there to kill himself, and did so with the ghost’s help. The final image was of the ghost cuddling his dead father’s body, realising at last that he had been loved all along. It was a very moving moment, and a good way to end the story.
There were excellent performances all round from the cast, and some lovely touches in the staging which added to the atmosphere of the story. When someone died, red petals were dropped down onto the stage, which was a beautiful and simple effect. When the two babies were together on the stage, waiting for the decision to be made about swapping them, the relevant actors sat cross-legged diagonally opposite each other on the same side as their baby and made the crying noises – very effective. The story was complicated but told so well that we followed it quite easily, and if this is the standard when they’ve only just started, what will it be like when we see it next?
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me