Monkey …. Journey to the West (Theatre of Image)
Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre
September 24 – 27
It is a much quoted maxim that there are only seven stories types and that all others are based on them. One of these is the quest, in which the protagonist and companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location, facing many obstacles and temptations along the way. With its trials and tribulations tale of a Chinese pilgrim of common birth’s commission to collect three sacred scriptures from a monastery in India, “Monkey … Journey to the West” definitely falls within the quest category. So it is perhaps easy to appreciate its appeal to both youngsters and nostalgic adults alike.
With veteran Shakespeare director John Bell joining Kim Carpenter at the helm, “Monkey …. Journey to the West” certainly does justice to its iconic cult ‘70s television show namesake, retaining the charm of the storyline and character nuances. The stage show, of course, offers a whole new layer to the story, making full use of the Powerhouse Theatre location to bring its Asian origins to life in a feast of colour and movement.
Although a stage appears with bamboo scaffolding either side, this is not from where the actors perform. Rather, the majority of the action occurs at ground level as the lonely, anxious pilgrim, mortal master Tripitaka (Aileen Huynh) is joined on his hungry journey across raging rivers and burning deserts to collect the scriptures from Vulture’s Peak by a rag-tag band of divine disciples, sent to guide and protect as they fight demons and face perils. Joining rude and rapacious Pigsy (Darren Gilshenan) and the sincere but slow monster Sandy (Justin Smith), is the mortally misaligned (i.e. superbad) Monkey (Algin Abella), who, having disrupted the peach banquet of the Queen of Heaven and maddened The Great Sage of Heaven, is imprisoned by Buddah in a rock for 500 years, awaiting rescue.
As the mischievous Monkey, Abella gives a spirited performance, full of energy and audience engagement. Indeed, in its comical absurdist approach to its classic Chinese tale of adventure, the show is often comfortably pantomime in tone, including catchy songs and camp characters to delight the younger audience members, in particular through famer Pigsy’s bodily function bawdiness and violent threats to have others “eat my rake”. The work of Parkour Group, Team9lives adds a tangible energy and physical theatre features heavily, inventively creating the illusion of props.
However, no imagination is needed when it comes to the production’s strong visuals. From giant river monster divinities of Chinese dragon ilk to the shadow puppetry that journals the party’s growing membership, the puppets are not only effective in paying homage to its Chinese theatre flavour, but add another level of audience engagement. The staging highlight, however, has to be the delicate and intricate series of silk screen backdrop that are simply divine in their beauty.
When theatre is uniformed in all areas of production, audiences can accept any world as authentic and, despite (or more likely because of) its wackiness, “Monkey … Journey to the West” is certainly an example of this – sure to entice old and new fans alike with its magical celebration of the arts in all its spectacle.