Adaptor andDirector:Ross Ericson
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Apart from Shakespeare in Cantonese performed at The Globe last year it is rare to see any Chinese productions or stories based on Chinese history performed in the West End. Ross Ericson seeks to change that with his first full-length play DiaoChan: The Rise of the Courtesan which is playing Above the Arts Theatre near Leicester Square until 28 May. A stone’s throw from China Town, Eriscon has taken a classic Chinese story set during the second-century period of the Three Kingdoms and given it a modern recognisable heroine.
DiaoChan is a young singer and sometime lover to WangYun who is conducting marriage negotiations for his daughter, WangJingWei. But wires are crossed and the man he hopes will take his daughter, Chancellor’s adopted son LuBu, falls for DiaoChan instead. In revenge, DiaoChan concocts a plan to seduce the Chancellor DongZhou while secretly planning to marry his son – neither of whom she cares for. But as her power and influence grows, it brings war, ruin and destruction for all around her.
Red Dragonfly’s production is brought vividly to life in an array of colour and music. The costumes funded by Anthony and Nancy Yim richly represent the status of the wearer from courtly ladies to warriors, and as DiaoChan rises her dresses become more elaborate. Any production with an armoury specialist (Philip Dell) has taken its visual representation seriously, and that careful considered is wonderfully apparent throughout. Grist to the Mill Productions has combined set, lighting and music to transform Above the Arts’ tiny space into a convincing vision of Chinese homes, palaces and battlefields.
Ericson has created a well-written and classic stage drama that while honouring the original story has taken pains to make DiaoChan a more modern heroine than usually found in Chinese theatre. It’s full of interesting themes about the nature of power and how it is wielded differently by women (the focus of Act One) and by men in the predominantly masculine Act Two. This modern adaptation also hints at a Shakespearean influence, not just in the individual monologues that give the audience greater insight into character, but also the verbal sparring from Taming of the Shrew, a sense of conspiracy from Julius Caesar and the relentless murdering of Macbeth.
Michelle Yim grows in the role of DiaoChan and while her early scenes as a seductress are unconvincing, her role as arch manipulator becomes increasingly pivotal as she easily outwits the men around her and Yim soon has the audience on her side. Angelo Paragoso is particularly good as the Chancellor DongZhou, an arrogant warmonger who seems jaded by everything and yet certain of his own path to power. Arthur Lee is a youthful and occasionally fervent LuBu, whose strength lies in soldiering rather than strategy, while Siu-See Huang as WangJingWei and Andrew Wong as WangYun give enjoyable performances as the virtual innocents caught-up in DiaoChan’s machinations.
Ericson in his directorial hat keeps the action moving briskly until the significant deaths start to occur, after which the consequences of DiaoChan’s activities begin to drag, particularly in the sections eight years later. To keep momentum these scenes need to feel punchier and, in a play so concerned with destiny, build to some inevitable end for all involved. DiaoChan: The Rise of the Courtesan is a chance to see an ancient story performed in a modern and accessible format. In Ericson’s adaptation, it retains its grand themes of love, war and the role of women, but makes them feel as relevant now as they did hundreds of years ago.
Runs until 28 May 2016 | Image: Contributed