The Emperor and the Concubine – 4 Stars


The Emperor and the Concubine

Sadler’s Wells Theatre

Reviewed – 19th October 2018


“The makeup is also important to defining characters, and is incredibly effective and intricate”


Peking Opera, or Jingju as it’s known in China, is an art form which began in the eighteenth century as an amalgamation of several existing traditions. It involves singing, mime, movement, acrobatics and stage combat. It is highly stylised and features four major ‘types’ of performer. There is the Sheng character, or male lead, the Dan, or female lead, the Jing which is the painted face character and the Chou, or clown. Each performer will have studied for up to eight years to achieve the necessary understanding and expertise, and will usually only perform one character type. It’s Opera Jim, but not as we know it. There is little that western opera goers would recognise as a chorus, and there are no duets, almost always everyone sings alone. Actually. it’s not really opera at all, Jingju means ‘capital drama.’

I was lucky enough to be invited to go on a backstage tour before the show. It was fascinating to see the beautiful costumes and props close up and to meet Fan Wu, the Production Coordinator and Kevin Zhang, the Producer. They were charming, and clearly enjoyed explaining the meaning of the costumes and some of the traditions of Peking Opera. All the costumes are hand embroidered, and feature dragons and phoenixes and flowers. The male high class characters can wear dragon robes, and the high class females wear phoenixes. High status characters have ‘water sleeves,’ very long white sleeve extensions that float and flow, and symbolise the fact that they have no need to work. The tour definitely helped with understanding the action when the performance began.

The on stage orchestra play a mixture or percussion and stringed instruments, providing the backdrop to the movement and song. Movement is highly stylised and non naturalistic. From the graceful, willowy hand movements of the maids to the incredible acrobatics of the warriors, they all have to be mastered perfectly by the performers, a process that, along with vocal technique, combat skills and takes about eight years training. There is no room for improvisation or alteration of the established movements, but the actors seek to allow their own personality to shine through the traditional gestures.

The singing is so different to anything in western music that it can be difficult to appreciate. I wish the volume had been less ear bleeding, because to those of us not accustomed to the style of singing it could, at times, feel like an aural assault, especially in the higher register. By half way through the first act I was enjoying the male voices, in particular that of Yu Kuizhi’s Emperor, but the female voices were harder for me to like. The sound is shrill and harsh to the western ear, but clearly very skillful. Li Shengsu plays the Concubine with grace and beauty. I would like to understand the vocal techniques better so that I could appreciate her voice more.

One thing that could be improved on are the text descriptions. I would be surprised if a native English speaker had been involved in writing them, as there are several grammatical mistakes, and some amusing phrases that are not intended to be so.

The sets are sumptuous and the costumes, as I have already mentioned, are stunning. The makeup is also important to defining characters, and is incredibly effective and intricate. All in all The Emperor and the Concubine was an enjoyable and interesting experience, but it is hard to judge the quality of an art form that is so outside our normal experience. From watching the ecstatic response of the Chinese people in the audience, it was very good indeed.


Reviewed by Katre

Photography courtesy China National Peking Opera

The Emperor and the Concubine

Sadler’s Wells Theatre



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