Told through contemporary and ancient physical storytelling techniques, the National Theatre of China’s
Luocha Land is a charmed and charming piece of theatre, colourfully macabre and slickly executed.
Luocha Land is marketed as physical theatre, which turns out to be no casual label. The production is in constant motion, with the performers remarkably precise and powerful. While each energetic individual is skilful in their own right, Chenxi Yu’s whirling choreography is at its most effective during moments involving the whole ensemble. Set pieces – such as the plane flight and crash – are carried out well, with the foot-sure cast using their physicality to guide the audience through various perspectives within single moments. In comparison to the scale and fluidity of these set pieces, however, the more intimate scenes can occasionally feel stilted. Nonetheless, even in these intimate scenes the performers’ impressive bodily control is still clear.
Another feature of note is the inclusion of traditional Chinese Nuo opera elements. The pervasive atmosphere of mystery certainly springs from the production’s Nuo heritage, but the most obvious, and engaging, traditional aspect is the use of masks. Yan Zhao’s masks are superb, and allow for quick visual sleights of hand; a landscape transforming into a horde of demons is a particularly satisfying trick. And at no point do the masks feel restrictive – anonymity is incorporated into the performance and made one of its major strengths, serving to highlight first Maji’s exclusion from and then inclusion in the Luocha hierarchy.
With such rich visuals, the fact that this performance is in Mandarin does not hinder the experience for non-Mandarin speakers – and there is very little dialogue anyway. Infrequent subtitles prove helpful, as does the synopsis provided in the programme, but neither is necessary due to the clarity of storytelling. Indeed, one of this production’s faults lies in its apparent worry for the audience. At times certain plot-points are really hammered home with exaggerated gestures, slowing the pace and disrupting the texture of what is otherwise a swift and smooth narrative.
Yet overall, Luocha Land is a charmed and charming piece of theatre, colourfully macabre and slickly executed.