Above the Arts Theatre, Soho, 15 May 2016
However, Ericson’s adaptation is elegantly, even nobly, written. There is a lovely, weighted formality to the prose, suggestive of very different time and place.
One of the many virtues of theatre is that it can be a great teacher. Through it one can be introduced to history, cultures and idea with which one would not, otherwise, have had any contact. As Alan Bennett says in his introduction to The History Boys, “Theatre is often at its most absorbing when it’s school.”
“DaioChan, The Rise of the Courtesan,” playing at the Above the Arts Theatre in Soho, is the second production by Dragonfly Productions and brings another classic Chinese tale to Western audiences. DiaoChan was one of the Four Great Beauties of ancient China, although, unlike the other three, there isn’t much evidence that she actually existed.
According to legend, DaioChan lived in the third century AD and was so remarkably gorgeous that when confronted with her luminosity the sun itself would shy away in embarrassment. She would have needed all those physical advantages and more to survive in China of the third century AD, the so-called era of The Three Kingdoms following the end of the Han dynasty. This 60-year period was so jaw-droppingly bloody that China might have lost in the region of 75% of her population during it, and even now it counts as the second bloodiest spell of warfare in history, beaten to first place only by World War II.
There are various versions of the legend of DiaoChan, and the one writer/director Ross Ericson has chosen to adapt is the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, although, as he acknowledges, he has taken considerable liberties with the original text. In his version, DaioChan is not merely the puppet of arch-Machiavellian politico WangYun, but an active participant herself outwitting all the blundering men with her wit and charm. Such a spin is what we expect and doubtless fervently applaud in 2016, but it does mean that DaioChan occasionally expresses sentiments one wouldn’t usually think to encounter in a third century Chinese singing girl.
However, Ericson’s adaptation is elegantly, even nobly, written. There is a lovely, weighted formality to the prose, suggestive of very different time and place. It was a pleasure to listen to, and Ericson has a real flair for writing of this kind. There are also Shakespearian tragic connotations, with a blood-spattered stage, and all the main characters deliver soliloquies direct to the audience, explaining their motivations and compulsions. In the multiple betrayals, vaulting ambitions and assassinations of alleged tyrants, there are echoes of Macbeth and Julius Caesar.
Indeed, Ericson appears to have borrowed quite liberally from Shakespeare. DiaoChan’s protofeminist soliloquy, for example, sounds an awful lot like Shylock’s “Hath Not a Jew Eyes?”and DiaoChan is once exhorted to “Get to a nunnery.” Still, if you’re going to borrow, you might as well borrow from the best.
The play opens with WangYun fearing for his and his family’s safety as the latest twist of court politics turns threatens to turn against him. The kingdom is run by chancellor DongZhuo, aided and abetted by his warlike adopted son LuBu. When WangYun entertains the bigwigs at his house, DaioChan entertains the party with her dancing and so inflames both father and son with lust.
Helped by a convenient slice of mistaken identity, WangYun seizes the opportunity to turn the tables and advance his own cause. But DiaoChan is no pawn. She takes an active role in proceedings, initiating the next stage of developments, and furthering her own interests as much as her patron, arguing that as she is a woman in the quintessential man’s world she has no option but to use the only weapon allowed her: her beauty. As she observes, “I am a woman: my love is a negotiable commodity.” She has no compunction in sleeping her way to the top.
There are some strong aspects to this production. It is gorgeously and unexpectedly lavishly costumed, and lit by a warm red wash. Some of the acting is good. Michelle Yim is particularly appealing as DiaoChan, and one can quite believe her considerable charms would have subdued warlords and empires.
Siu-See brings a nice vitality and commitment to her dual roles as WangJingWei, daughter of WangYun, and the mother of DongZhuo. Indeed, when the two women are on stage together the tempo, life and subsequent interest of the production lift, although it is a calamitous decision to endow DongZhou’s mother with a Lancashire accent as well as a white wig, so we are temporarily transported from third century China to the Rovers Return.
Arthur Lee has a noble bearing and affecting innocence in the role of Lubu, deceived and betrayed by both DiaoChan and his father DongZhou, and Angela Paraguso just about manages to be believable as elderly chancellor DongZhou infatuated by DiaoChan. There’s no fool like an old fool.
Elsewhere the performances are indifferent, lacking energy and conviction. It takes some doing to be inaudible on the pint-sized stage of Above The Arts, but one of the actors here brought it off. All the men could do with a cattle prod conveniently located off-stage before they make an entrance.
The simple set consists largely of three six foot screens, which are wheeled around by the actors into different configurations. They are also used to cover the exits of the slain, although this is not always successfully accomplished and actors are often clearly visible slipping surreptitiously offstage. Scene changes, when handled slickly and with panache, can become an integral and satisfying part of the entertainment; this is not always the case.
In fairness, the actors have a lot to contend with in this space. For the first act, a street busker was clearly audible outside on Great Newport Street, and it can’t be easy to focus upon the satisfactory recreation of third century China to the strains of ‘Country Roads’.
That they and the director have committed to bringing this tale of ancient China to life for largely western audiences deserves commendation. Ross Ericson’s skill with the pen is considerable, and it is, for the most part, an enjoyable and interesting night in the theatre which leaves you knowing a little more about the history and culture of an ancient and fascinating civilisation.