Pros: Inspired casting and sound pacing, with a story just as relevant today as during the time of the Han Dynasty.
Cons: Constant background music and overhead stomping feet made total theatrical immersion rather laborious.
One of the greatest aspects of theatre is its ability to transport the audience into a place, a time, even a culture wholly unfamiliar to them, and to make it relevant. Red Dragonfly and Grist to the Mill Productions have achieved this for the second time with Ross Ericson’s fluid adaptation of Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, regarded as one of China’s finest literary accomplishments.
The plot centres on DiaoChan (the excellent Michelle Yim): a fiercely intelligent and – at least in thought and ambition – independent “singing girl” who along with her Master WangYun (Andrew Wong) schemes to play a father and adopted son against one another. This is achieved through a combination of mistaken identities and pure deceit, where DiaoChan is thought to be WangYun’s daughter, whilst his real daughter is humiliatingly side-lined.
The twists and turns were highly reminiscent of Shakespeare, with Yim demonstrating DiaoChan as a strong female presence, despite her obvious reliance upon men to heighten her position. On occasion I pondered DiaoChan’s true motives behind her actions, but her soliloquies to the audience conveyed a desire to simply be thought of as equal to a man. This was an interesting paradox, because the competing suitors were not as they first appeared. The chancellor DongZhuo (portrayed with subtle humour and dignity by Angelo Paragoso) was given an extra dimension though his relationship with his mother, whereas his adopted son and subordinate LeeYun (Arthur Lee) altered over time from nervous lover to ambitious murderer.
The whole set was bathed in scarlet light, and the costumes were sumptuous. The set was sparse but effective, using only three moving screens, a chair and a chess set as props. The delivery, though occasionally shaky in parts, blossomed as the play progressed. I was impressed that two of the actors in the company were new to the stage. I also appreciated that the actors were using their own accents which added to the realism. Each act seemed to fly by and I remained disappointed when DiaoChan drew to a rather abrupt close.
My only criticism is less of the play itself and more of its surroundings. There was a HUGE amount of noise coming from the floor above and music pumping from the adjacent room which certainly had no place in ancient China. How the actors coped under these strained circumstances is beyond me, but they performed with utter professionalism.
DiaoChan is an exquisite little piece of theatre, a respectful bow to the era with an aura of authenticity and intrigue. It deserves to be busting at the seams with audience members every night.
Original Author: Luo Guanzhong
Adapted by: Ross Ericson
Director: Ross Ericson
Production Company: Red Dragonfly Productions and Grist to the Mill Productions
Booking Until: 28 May 2016
Box Office: 0207 836 8463
Booking Link: https://artstheatrewestend.co.uk/whats-on/diaochan:-the-rise-of-the-courtesan/