Damon Albarn - Monkey: journey to the west

Paris Châtelet, Saturday September 29, Wednesday October 3 2007

Conductor: André de Ridder. Conception and production: Chen Shi-Zheng. Visuals, costumes, sets and cartoons: Jamie Hewlett. Monkey King: Fei Yang. Acrobats, martial arts performers, Chinese opera singers, orchestra and chorus of Damon Albarn.

Monkey: Journey to the West is billed as opera but is hard to write up if “legitimate” opera is all you know, or, like me, this is the first time you’ve ever heard of Damon Albarn, Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz and Blur. So I’m going to cheat and quote a few professional critics, better equipped than I for the job.

As The Times’ critic wrote when the show appeared earlier this year in Manchester: “…the enchanting Monkey: Journey to the West is no closer to opera (at least as understood in the West) than it is to circus, dance, mime or a martial arts movie. Indeed, few of the 45-strong Chinese cast do any singing. But genre distinctions don’t really matter. Brilliantly masterminded by the Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng – and with live action dovetailed into fantastical cartoons by Jamie Hewlett, the visual brains behind Gorillaz, Albarn’s “virtual” band – Monkey is simply a piece of music theatre of the most spectacular kind.”

La Libre Belgique had a decent stab at describing Albarn’s music (my translation): “Essentially western in style despite numerous oriental effects (and instruments), Albarn’s music borrows with talent from pop, the sixties aesthetic, new age, experimental movements, minimalism, electronic music and even hip-hop.”

As to the action, Altamusica sums it up fairly well in a paragraph (my translation again): “The monkey sets off on a magic cloud, descends to the bottom of the sea and squirms in the gigantic palm of a Buddha whose five fingers are the pillars of wisdom. The little beast is not alone in leaping around: around 50 acrobats, singers and dancers fly through the air, spin plates, perform the contortionist acts traditional in Chinese circus, run around on roller blades and stage fights worthy of Star Wars or amazing displays of King-Fu. Meanwhile, cartoon films are superposed, the product of a cartoon star, Jamie Hewlett, creator of the virtual aesthetics of Gorillaz.”

The reviews have been mainly benevolent to rave. My own thoughts during the show were that (a) it was more conventional and less avant-garde than I expected; (b) the music was definitely short-winded and far from seamless; (c) Disney would have managed the staging better; (d) I’ve seen more impressive battle scenes in Peking opera and (e) apart from the monkey himself, the characters lacked any clear personality.

In other words, I was more on the side of The Guardian: “But though the stunts can be breathtaking, the musical and dramatic development is fairly inert. Albarn has certainly extended himself […] Yet, surprisingly for someone with Albarn's melodic gift, there are no arias, thematic development or even much in the way of a memorable tune. Ultimately Monkey is a cartoon opera in the same way that Gorillaz is a cartoon band, which makes it difficult to empathise with the characters on an emotional level.”

However, the 25-year-old artist I took along to the second performance, who of course knew Gorillaz and Blur but nothing at all about opera, had none of these misgivings - and at the Châtelet they’ve had to schedule extra performances.

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