The National Theatre of China have brought their visually stunning production of Life On The Silk Road to Zoo Southside. It is a physical theatre feast, beautifully performed with mesmerising choreography and it is worth making the time for its slightly longer run time of 80 minutes. You'll have enormous respect for the performers' stamina to pull it off.
The show follows the life of 2nd Century BCE diplomat, explorer, imperial envoy from Emperor Wudi and national hero, Zhiang Qian on his travels along what would become the Silk Road, as he makes contact with tribes, is captured, married and has children, loses his companions and family to a sandstorm, and braves the dangerous mountain passes. The detailed nuances of the plot may be a bit confusing and rapid – such as one of the quickest boy meets girl, gets married and has a child sequences – but it never leaves you too lost and is always beautiful to watch. If anything one can see it as having potential for expanding the piece into a two-act full-length show.
The National Theatre of China make use of the large stage space at Zoo to bring a visual treat. The wide back wall serves as a projection screen for subtle but beautiful background to the dance. The costumes are sumptuous and mostly beautifully muted tones so as to not clash with the projections. However, there is a slight issue with being able to tell the difference between minor characters. This show is an international collaboration between artists from China and France; French composer Uriel Barthelemip provides the lush recorded sound while musician Pan Yu, performs excellently live on stage.
However, the true triumph of the show is the combination of the use of fabric and the exquisite choreography. Flags and drapes feature heavily in the piece, as both a visual pun on the title and as excellent versatile props; the fabric becomes tents, sandstorms, snow and avalanches. The cast seem to act as one being, moving and breathing in unison in spectacular fashion.
Wu Junda’s performance as the hero, Zhang Qian deserves an honorable mention for the sheer stamina and grace of his performance. Qian was both a traditional hero on his hero's journey, but is also allowed moments of suffering, humanity and loneliness, which really brings out his human side. Combined with the excellently physical and nuanced facial expressions of Tian Ge who plays Qian’s loyal horse, the two have a chemistry that is wonderful to watch. This makes the treacherous journey through the mountains, complete with falling snow and avalanches, such a showstopper.
The Fringe is one of those crazy times of year when an incredible internationally-renowned piece that would rarely be available in the UK is just around the corner. I urge you – if you are into physical theatre – go.