DiaoChan: the Rise of the Courtesan, is an enthralling tale of power, lust, vengeance and betrayal during the period of the Three Kingdoms, one of the bloodiest in Chinese History – an epoch marked by tyrannical rulers and sustained periods of warfare. Adapted by Director Ross Ericson from the Chinese classic the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, DiaoChan soars to the heights of Shakespearean tragedy – such is the eloquence of its language – and never more so than when each character reveals his inner thoughts through soliloquy.
The dramatic action is propelled through the character of DiaoChan (Michelle Yim) a ‛singing girl’ who is acutely aware of the powerless position relegated to her sex.
DiaoChan uses her youth and seductive beauty to instigate conflict between the despotic chancellor DongZhuo (Angelo Paragoso) and his adopted son LüBu (Arthur Lee), who is also faithful warrior and protector to DongZhuo. She devises this plot with the help of WangYun (Andrew Wong) a court minister with an unwed daughter, WangJingWei (SiuSee Hung). It is only the loyal warrior LiSu (Benjamin Lok) who offers the voice of reason and astutely sees through the destructive machinations of DiaoChan. However, it is never quite clear what drives DiaoChan to set one man against the other. Is it simply the will to power or is it hatred of all men and their complete domination of women, which was true of this particular time in Chinese history. If it is the will to power, then I missed it as DiaoChan never speaks the language of power, and it would help if she had a soliloquy that revealed this. Perhaps, a little less emphasis on her feminine wiles and more on her penchant for dire mastery. As she is written now, there is a side to DiaoChan that is too close to the stereotypical footballer’s wife, complete with spray tan, designer bags and hair extensions. Or perhaps I am missing the point, which is that in a time of brutal repression, she is a transitional character who dares to use her voice as a vehicle to change the existing social structure. It is my only criticism of this extremely economical and beautifully written play, in which each word counts and each actor unveils the truth of his/her character.
Arthur Lee conveys perfectly the valour of warrior and the vulnerability of broken-hearted suitor in LüBu, while Benjamin Lok conveys the dignity of a quieter courage for LiSu. SiuSee Hung who plays two roles, is even more effective as DongZhuo’s mother, imbuing her character with the wisdom and aching love of a mother for her son, while Angelo Paragoso strikes the right note as despot DongZhuo, a character with an appetite for the female body, as well as the humility of a dutiful son. Andrew Wong imbues his character with honour and the weight of fatherly concerns, while Michelle Yim is the perfect seductress as DiaoChan, a woman so beguiling that men lose their reason in her presence.
DiaoChan’s first and second acts are 50 minutes long but the time whizzes by, as do the three Chinesestyle wooden screens that the characters slide along the stage – this action is so hypnotic that I was hardly aware that the screens were being used for scene changes and to conceal a character’s exit. DiaoChan: the Rise of the Courtesan is a beautifully realised, captivating piece of theatre. Don’t miss it.
Review by Loretta Monaco
After the success of The Autumn of Han Red Dragonfly returns with another exciting adaptation of a Chinese classic. Based on the ancient Chinese legend of DiaoChan, part of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, this production has been called a Chinese Macbeth, and brings to the stage an epic story of lust, jealousy and revenge.
The Empire is in turmoil and the tyrant DongZhuo, with the great warrior LuBu at his side, is systematically putting to the sword all those who oppose him. The minister WangYun fears for the lives of his family, but when both DongZhuo and LuBu show a lustful interest in DiaoChan – a singing girl of WangYun’s household she comes up with a plan that could solve both their problems – a plan that would see DongZhuo fall and see her rise to the ranks of the nobility.
DiaoChan: the Rise of the Courtesan
Above the Arts, Arts Theatre, Great Newport St, London WC2H 7JB
Monday 9 May to Saturday 28 May 2016
Performances: Mon – Sat 7.30pm (Sat Matinee 2pm)
Box Office tel: 020 7836 8463