Journey to the West image(1)

Fringe review: Journey to the West

Megan Amato reviews Journey to the West at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Published during the Ming dynasty, Journey to the West is likely one of the most well-known and celebrated Chinese novels – at least to us outside of China. In fact, there were two adaptations of it at the fringe this year: the first a children’s show and the second this fantastic physical theatre and opera. 

There are different genres of Chinese opera, often combining elements of singing, reciting and martial arts along with storytelling to traditional music. This version of Journey to the West is Nuo Opera with its elaborate masks and hero-led storytelling – the perfect medium for this story of a protagonist driving away or taming many ferocious foes to the sound of the Guqin (Chinese zither) in the backdrop.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, it imagines the real pilgrimage of monk Xuanzang from China to India to collect the Buddhist sutras. Like many Chinese epics, the hero must face trials before he can reach his goal and our delightful monk is tested again and again, both with his life and his own moral fibre. 

He’s given three protectors in his journey by Buddha: The Monkey King, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing. Each has done some evil and to atone for their sins, they are to accompany Xuanzang to obtain the sutras. 

Despite the somewhat small and simply decorated stage, the actors portrayed this incredible journey with aplomb, demonstrating their range of acting, singing and physical skill. Each actor was continuously energetic despite the physical demand of the performance. 

Sung and acted in Mandarin with English subtitles, their singing was beautiful and demonstrated how beautiful the language is to even us non-Chinese speakers.

Xuanzang’s arc was well portrayed by the lead actor who began as a naïve monk, his facial expressions getting continuously heavy as the weight of his journey is added onto his shoulders, both physically and spiritually. The supporting cast were just as accomplished, portraying different characters with skill and versatility. 

An entertaining yet philosophical performance, gorgeously showcasing a usually quite elaborate operatic style on a minimalist set.  

The audience was given a bonus afterwards as director Huang Ying shared different aspects of the opera, including teaching us how to do some simple martial arts, face painting for the stage, a photo-op with some of the props, and even a Guqin demonstration.


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