A combination of drama, singing, gymnastics and mime, The Warrior Women of Yang stands out amongst the myriad of shows on offer in London. A cynic might suggest that that the whole event was merely evidence of China attempting to fight on a cultural front in the New Cold War, given the description of the company as being ‘directly under the control of the Ministry of Culture’ in the programme, the CCTV (China State TV) journalist interviewing audience members outside, as well as the fact that the vastly expensive show was only being staged for one night to a three-quarter full auditorium. Yet any questions regarding the background to the production are laid aside as soon as it begins, for the show is truly spectacular.
Set in an ancient time during the reign of the Emperor of Mercy, it tells the story of the noble family whose male line have all fallen in battle, leaving four generations of female fighters to lead the defence of the realm. These warrior women of Yang are led by their one-hundred-year-old grand dowager, a part performed and sung with great power and poise by Zhang Jing. The opera opens with birthday celebrations for General Zongbao, which soon becomes funereal as it is realised the general has, in fact, died defending their country. Tense political deliberations follow, before a much more dynamic second half in which fighting is represented by spectacular Olympic-standard acrobatics.
As is common in stories of the epic tradition, there is little depth in characterisation or complexity of emotion. Instead, it is the sweep of dramatic events that is the focus. Characters move between the stunningly decorated sets of mountainscapes or temples, all to the rich sound of the live Chinese orchestra that transitions between the grand and melodious as they sing and interact, to the erratic and atonal as they move around or fight.
My initial impression was that the production might only be enjoyable from a point of distant admiration of the colours and the sounds of the production, so distant was the world of ancient militarism and so alien was the form and style of Chinese opera. But the heartwarming story of feminist redemption and familial love wins you over, while the riot of colour and movement keeps you transfixed in awe. Beneath caked-on make-up masks and impossibly complicated embroidered silken costumes and jewels, you can grasp distinct, relatable personalities, whose stories you really root for.
Totally different and sensually overwhelming, the buzz in the auditorium as the curtain closed revealed an audience feeling privileged to have caught this touring company for the one night it was there.
The Warrior Women of Yang played at Sadler’s Wells on 28 November. For more information, see the Sadler’s Wells website.