Katharine and I were lucky enough to score some free tickets to the public dress rehearsal of Monkey: Journey to the West last night, which must rank as Manchester’s most anticipated arts event ever. It opens and is the jewel in the crown of the Manchester International Festival, the world’s first international festival of original, new work.
About ten years ago Manchester had a festival sponsored by Boddingtons, but in truth few events were created especially for that. If you happened to be doing a bit of theatre or comedy anyway while that festival was on, they’d happily include you in the programme. This is radically different, very serious, adventurous and brave. Getting people to go to new work is not easy. When I was promoting pub theatre all the critics turned up for the work by new writers and devoted acres of newsprint to us. But the theatre going public stayed at home. Then we put on some classic Stoppard and sold out, with far less publicity.
I can’t show you any pics from the show, which is a great shame given that this is a most grand spectacle. But I can show you BBC Arts Supremo Alan Yentob whose presence, with documentary crew, tells us this is a Big Thing. Yentob’s Imagine blog has much more, including video, interviews et cetera. I’m not such a great celebrity watcher, but nobody could miss Su Pollard who sat directly behind us and behaved as if the Hi-De-Hi! cameras were still rolling. Bless her, if you are so inclined.
Anyway. What of Monkey: Journey to the West itself. I guess you know it’s an opera composed by Damon Albarn and designed by Jamie Hewlett who also created some fantastic animated sequences that blend seamlessly with the live action thanks to the great skill of director and adapter Chen Shi-Zheng. That stage action is a breathtaking circus that showcases the contortionists’ talents and includes plenty of flying.
It really shouldn’t work because so much has been thrown into the pot you’d think it would trip over itself. But we do get a proper story told through a character driven narrative and with some truly spectacular fight scenes. Monkey himself is a most unpleasant character well beyond cheeky – catchphrase: ‘I’m going to beat you to death!’ – who gets what he wants by sheer brute force. But then Tripitaka, the monk who rescues and joins him on his journey is such a wimp… Pigsy could have been borrowed from the Wizard of Oz. Oh yeah, there’s comedy too!
Just go see it. You will be transfixed.