Professor Joe Goldblatt
Every young man and woman may at some time imagine an adventurous journey to an exciting destination. In my case, the journey itself was even more dramatic than the destination.
For my fortieth birthday, I dreamed of learning to drive a horse and carriage. My previous experience with horses had been traumatic and involved a slippery saddle sliding underneath the horse and me holding on for dear life whilst I was ten years old and attending summer camp. However, as I approached my milestone birthday, I dreamed about the romance of travelling through the Great Smokey Mountains of Tennessee in the USA accompanied by my two sons. Every day was an adventure as we had to source water, accomodation that welcomed our horse, and navigate the county roads to insure we did not have a collision.
Perhaps this is why when I watched the opening scenes of the exquisitely operatic production of the Chinese classic folk tale Jounry to the West, directed with great style and innovation by Huang Ying, I was immediately hooked as the lead character widened his eyes with anticipation to begin his difficult and ultimately successful journey. I immediately remembered that moment thirty years ago when to begin my journey I snapped the reins and told the horse to “giddy up!”
This play dates back to the sixteenth century in China when the the story was first published in novel form. Later, in 1942 an abridged version was published under the title of Monkey and it grew in popularity. The story is one of a Tang dynasty Buddhist monk and scholar named Xuanzang who sets off from China to India to collect the sacred scriptures. Along the way, he faces many trials and tribulations and ultimately triumphs in returning home.
The production that I had the privilege to see is the latest reincarnation of the classic tale. The company of seven actors and a traditional Chinese folk musician incorporates exotic costumes, Peking opera style singing and staging, dramatic lighting, and lavish costumes that combine to weave a dramatic spell that sweeps the audience along with the electrifying journey of Xuanzang. The traditional songs were beautifully delivered with subtle and sweet accompianment by the onstage musician and the physical theatre performed by the actors impossible leg lifts that literally raised the roof.
In one scene, a mask is attached to an actors foot and you actually soon suspend disbelief and imagine his foot has become a live human being. Rarely will you see on one stage so many actors with so many extraordinary talents including mind blowing acrobatics, highly accomplished musical voices, exciting stage combat, and much, much more.
As I witnessed Xuanzang confront his many challenges during his long journey I recalled my own obstacles in completing my 250 mile horse and buggy journey. Each daily (and sometimes hourly) struggle actually strengthened my resolve to carry on and complete my mission. Therefore, it is remarkableto me that 500 years after the story was first written that the classic tale of a treacherous journey still is so popular all over the world. I suppose that in popular culture whether you are taking a road trip on the USA Route 66 or a journey to outer space in Star Trek, each of us has buried within the not so hidden desire for adventure through a future journey.
This exquisite production of Journey to the West that is now at the Ian McKellan Theatre at St Stephens Church provides just the opportunity for you to seize to begin your own personal journey through the imagination of these talented world class Chinese actors, director, and designers. After all, even the first man on the moon once said “One small step for man, one giant step for mankind.” This remarkable production, greeted with loud and long applause and shouts of bravo, has taken a giant step forward in world theatre by launching a new pilgrimage through a very old tale and the audience is all the better for coming along on this sacred and often thrilling journey.
To attend Journey to the West visit https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/journey-to-the-west
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University. His opinion are his own. To learn more about his views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot