There are more than 1,000 Peking opera (or “jingju”) plays in existence. Over the past 50 years, the China National Peking Opera Company has performed more than 500 new and traditional plays. How to choose what to bring to the UK? For its latest visit, it opted for poignant tragedy and broad comedy – which certainly showed the extensive range of this troupe’s skills.
Peking opera’s blend of highly stylised acting, singing, music and movement is always a feast for the senses. The costumes are reason enough to watch in themselves – extravagant highly embroidered silks in eye-popping colour combinations; dazzling headdresses for the women, blazing with crystals; and intricate make-up: all loaded with meaning for the opera aficionado. For the novice, though, the plots of these two operas were possibly rather hard to trek through.
A River All Red is a robustly masculine tale of war and betrayal, based on the true story of the wronged 10th-century military leader Yue Fei, now considered a national hero. It starts with a grand-scale battle scene, full of whirling blades and tumbling acrobatics – but moves away from action after this, as Yue’s fate is manipulated by the double-crossing prime minister, Qin Hui, who tricks the weak-willed emperor into calling back Yue and his troops just as they are about to achieve victory over their enemies, the Jurchen.
Yue correctly guesses that the “peace talks” suggested by the Jurchen are a ruse, but Qin’s Machiavellian manoeuvrings in the Imperial Court mean Yue’s name is besmirched and he’s imprisoned and executed. There is, however, a lot of exposition on loyalty to one’s country and the benefits of peace over war before we get to Yue’s touching last moments with his wife.
Yu Kuizhi, playing Yue, is one of the company’s star performers and radiated stoicism in the face of treachery. Li Shengsu as his wife had little stage time but made a big impact, with every gesture graceful and significant. (I was particularly intrigued by her refined hand movements – even more so when my next-seat neighbour explained performers have to soak their hands in hot water to make the fingers pliable enough to bend into those extraordinary shapes.) Hu Bin, playing the jing (painted-face) role of General Niu, was a magnetic presence, full of bluster and impetuousness, and itching to resume the fight. And it’s fascinating to watch the discipline these performers exert over their bodies, with even the smallest eye movement choreographed.
The Phoenix Returns Home, created in 1929, gives Li centre-stage as Xue’e, the beautiful daughter of the court minister Cheng Pu (Ma Xiangfei). Cheng wants to marry her off to Mu, a handsome eligible student – but Xue’e has an unmarried elder sister, who tradition dictates should be married first. The problem is, Xueyan (a panto-like role for the male actor Chen Guosen) is hideously ugly and ill-mannered. Cheng and his wife clash, suitors scheme, and Xueyan tries to turn events to her best advantage, with predictably disastrous results. Amid all this, of course, there’s time for a battle scene.
The largely Chinese audience loved the broad humour of the piece. The equation of ugly with immoral is a familiar idea from traditional tales the world over, but can still be a bit hard to take. However, the warmhearted performances by Chen and, also notably, Wang Jue (in the clown role of the rich, stupid Lord Zhu) made it more bearable. They threw themselves into their key comic roles; meanwhile Chen Xuzhi was an appealingly bemused Mu. The star performer Li made this production her own, though; she twinkled and twittered as the “virtuous” beautiful daughter, prepared to die rather than lose her reputation – but there was something decidedly steely in the dismissive flick of her water sleeve, and her giggling delight in everyone else’s mishaps.