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Monkey. Journey to the West

Photo by Steven Siewert

Riverside Theatres presents Kim Carpenter’s Theatre of Image, MONKEY. JOURNEY TO THE WEST, written by Donna Abela, and Composed by Peter Kennard, at the Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, 2 -11 October.

Kim Carpenter’s Theatre of Image is presenting his new work, a version of the 16th Century, three-volume, 1500-page novel, MONKEY. JOURNEY TO THE WEST. The original is attributed to Wu Cheng’en (Ming Dynasty). Arthur Waley, in 1942, published a popular abridged translation in English. It has since been translated again, and seen in many, many stage versions – opera, included, and for film and television. My first experience was with the bewildering (I was a child, of kinds) Japanese television series, MONKEY MAGIC, in the late 1970’s. I, also, encountered it in a sober four hour version in the 1990’s in Berkley, California. This stage adaption has been written by Australian playwright, Donna Abela.

Kim Carpenter tells us in his program message:

Together with writer, Donna Abela, I dived into the pages of (the book) and our eyes widened at the amazing number of rich and extraordinary stories MONKEY had to offer. Inspired by the vivid beauty, mad-cap humour, mythology and exciting battles we found throughout the readings, we extracted the best stories into one, complete, fantastical action-packed stage adventure that will appeal to all – no matter what age or background.

This play begins with a prelude to the main story, with the birth of Monkey on Flower Fruit Mountain, and of some of his consequent bad behaviours, such as eating the forbidden peaches of immortality, which has him punished by being imprisoned in the Five Element Mountain. He has acquired the gift of flying, transformational skills, and eye-sight to see far into the distance and through any disguise – he has all the qualities of a ‘trickster hero’.

China is suffering from a malaise of moral guidance and the Queen of Heaven (Ivy Mak), chooses and instructs a Buddhist monk, Tripitaka (Aileen Huynh), to take the perilous journey to the West, to the Buddha (Anthony Taufa), to India, for the scrolls of Enlightenment. Tripitaka releases Monkey – Sun WuKong (Aljin Abela), from his prison and elicits him as a guide for the journey. They are joined in this expedition by Zhu Bajie (a half man, half pig) – Pigsy (Darren Gilshenan), and Sha Wujing (a river dragon) – Sandy (Justin Smith). Ms Abela’s selected text reveals a mixture of Chinese folk religion, Chinese mythology and Taoist and Buddhist philosophy that delivers a comic adventure story, flavoured by a delicate scent of respectful religious and cultural insight. It is a journey towards enlightenment from which we learn, as an audience, that each of us can achieve only with the help of others – it requires the negotiations of a team. When Tripitatka postures the scrolls to us at the end of the play, it is an offer for us to join this team and learn from the wisdom of the Buddha. That these scrolls of enlightenment could just as easily be those of the stories of the Ancient Greeks, the Old Testament, The Holy Koran, The Christian Gospels, and/or other human literary inventions of wisdoms that have attempted to shape our lives for the better from so long ago, and are still so ignored, is a sad reflection, on the habits of man. It is especially so, then, from one as old as I, shuddering at our daily news, sitting in the midst of the children of the future, here, at Riverside.

There are two Directors for this project, Kim Carpenter and John Bell.

Mr Carpenter has created the magical wonder of the visuals of this work: the many and witty Costumes, Set Design, extraordinarily moving and elegantly simple puppets – rod, and otherwise – and subtle Video elements (Martin Fox) on a giant background screen, that not only tells story but also conjures, suggests, mood and temper to the adventures. The Lighting Design by Sian James-Holland is just as dexterous and demanding. This is an immense design effort that in the seemingly effortlessness functioning in the performance, belies their, on reflection, undoubted, complexity to achieve. The shifts, changes and speed of it all is bedazzling in its, mostly, human feats – set and costume changes galore!

Mr Bell, I am assuming, has been in charge of the action of the actors. Along with Ms Abela, he has contrived his telling of this story on the high wire between evolving contemporary burlesque traditions, that has a very powerful heritage line to Mr Bell’s first splash on the Australian stage way back in 1970, with his production of THE LEGEND OF KING O’MALLEY (Bob Ellis and Michael Boddy). This aesthetic was, mostly, more than less, glossed onto his early comic Shakespeare work (e.g. HAMLET ON ICE (Nimrod St Theatre); MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (Nimrod in the now Belvoir Theatre), where the vulgarisms, traditions of the Aussie vaudeville theatre emerged as part of his comic tricks, and now, here, shows its hybrid head once again, balanced with a respectful nod to both the comic and sacred origins of the Chinese story. It is the control of the burlesque and comic vaudeville, especially, of his two ‘clowns’, Mr Gilshenan, and later, Mr Taufa (especially, as Mr Singh) that Mr Bell needs to keep a taut leash on. The balance is hair-wire thin with these two instinctive ‘improvisers’, and any, too many extempore indulgences, could tip the work into a wrong ‘zone’ in this journey to the west.

Music plays a strong part in facilitating the ‘oiling’ of Mr Bell’s instincts and Composer/Lyricist/Live Musician: Peter Kennard supplies it non-stop and with great élan, songs as well. Add to the principal cast, a team of Physical Theatre artists: two actors, who also move brilliantly: Lia Reutens and Troy Honeysett; and Team 9Lives – a multi-disciplined physical troupe originating in the South-West of Sydney – Tim Farley, Joshua Tieu and Jair Coronado, guided by an intrepid Movement Director, Scott Witt, and energy is a blur of creativity and endless contributive distractions.

There is much beauty in the design and comedy in these adventures and there is a very gifted team to deliver them: Mr Gilshenan’s Pigsy, a near perfect delight, occasionally tempted to some over-the-top crassness – but then he is Pigsy! ; a phlegmatic shy speaker of wisdoms, Sandy, played by an appealing Mr Smith; many varied and delightfully sketched characters, especially his ‘crazy-campy’ Mr Singh, from Mr Taufa – a zany inspired delight; while Ms Mak and Reutens work like the proverbial ‘trojans’, to quite provocative and comic rewards with a vast array of spectacular costume changes and characters – none more so than the sexy-spangly black leotarded Spider Spirits.

Integral, and a ballast to the imaginative mayhem in the writing from Ms Abela, and the hi-jinx of the casting above, are two wonderful performances from Mr Abela, as Monkey, and Ms Huynh, as the earnest and responsible monk, Tripitaka. Mr Abela from his first entrance is physically and vocally primed with athleticism, and the graceful discipline of his work is enhanced with what appears to be a deep understanding of the function and cultural inheritance of such a figure as Monkey, in the canon of Chinese and South Asian literature. The work seems to be inspired in its delicate but absolute positive choice from artistic moment to moment. It is not only work to admire from a place of craft objectivity, but also I found it, subjectively, a moving portrait: Monkey’s forced exile from the gang of four warriors at the end of act one after the encounter with the machinations of the White Bone Demon (a great, great  big, ‘scary’ puppet) was hugely affecting, its depth of expression and arc of revealed emotional complications, detailed and bravely unhurried. No less, in considered and considerable skill, is Mr Abela’s antic humour and physical traits as mischievous  Monkey. Ms Huynh in her performance, with a much more difficult task, essentially, the ‘sober-sides’ of the story, creates an elegant and unfussy presence and invention of action in her pivotal role as the journeyman with a sacred mission, and is clearly centred and in charge of all that is going on about her – it is a wholly satisfying being in what could be, in lesser hands, a bore – Ms Huynh delivers empathetic humanity and is the ‘straight arrow’ of this journey to the west.

The tone of this performance is an issue, it seems, for some. In aiming for this MONKEY “to appeal to all” – all ages, all ethnicities etc – the production can appear to be jolting, and culturally, a little ‘erratic’. The ‘rough-house’ Australianess of some of the low comedy is sometimes a little unsettling, startling. This MONKEY, JOURNEY TO THE WEST is definitely an Aussie-take, a la the tradition of John Bell and his love of the Australian, historic vaudeville circuit, and in the traditions of such clowns as Roy ‘Mo’ Rene. However, I do remember, and in this very theatre, the Riverside, at a past Sydney Festival, attending a very raucous Korean version of Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, which had the ‘fairies’ and mechanicals more Monkey (trickster/pranksters) in tone, than of the Athenian/English forest  – and that, like The Theatre of Image’s present production, was a perfectly delightful afternoon in the theatre. Bracing. See what you think. Andy Griffths’ incredible series of illustrated children’s books e.g. THE DAY MY BUM WENT PSYCHO might be a guide to the open- mindedness of the children in the audience who it did not seem to me to be confronted at all with some of the ‘stuff” going on as some older audience members were. My two Aussie-Chinese guests, along with the children, loved it, too.

Recently, in my blog on THE WITCHES, I wrote of the necessity of developing children’s theatre experiences and wondered about the amazing commitment and scale of the National Theatre of Great Britain, and the lack of that diversity of programming from our major company, The Sydney Theatre Company (STC). (Not forgetting the Monkey Baa company, at all, by the way). It seems to me that MONKEY from The Theatre Of Image is just the kind of show that could sit very comfortably in the Sydney Theatre in a coming Christmas holiday, don’t you think? I consider that if we gave Mr Carpenter more funding to provide, at least, a larger backstage support team, what wonders would be facilitated, without the stretched stress of effort, sometimes a little apparent.

Anyway, one needs to congratulate Mr Carpenter for his tireless dedication to the children of Australia. THE BOOK OF EVERYTHING, another instance of joy. His supporters, too – it is no easy job to maintain one’s vision in this country. Add, as well, congratulations and respect to Donna Abela, the writer, who with this work has capped a wonderful year, and contribution to the Sydney theatre landscape, following on from her very different, but, top work, JUMP FOR JORDAN, at the Griffin Theatre, at the start of the year.

Do go – it is a delight. An excellent company of dedicated and joyful artists right through all its ranks and disciplines. Excellence, personified, I reckon. You will have a marvellous time, if you can surrender to it.