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June 22, 2007

Great Sage Equal of Heaven

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Inspired by the coolest thing on television as they were growing up, Gorillaz' Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett are staging a circus-opera, Monkey: Journey to the West. Oh, to be in Manchester.

We’re in a converted factory in a south-west suburb of Paris, where the rehearsals for Monkey: Journey to the West resemble a medieval carnival. The building is swarming with acrobats and martial artists, casually spending their down time uni-cycling, juggling, sword-fighting, plate-spinning and walking around on their hands.

Wandering amid this Bacchanalian scene is the opera’s composer, Damon Albarn, occasionally shouting out suggestions as to how the young cast should be singing. In another room, the impish figure of Jamie Hewlett – the cartoonist behind Gorillaz and the opera’s designer – is watching a beefy Chinese acrobat having his head taped over and his face covered in plaster as he is fitted with a huge, cartoonish latex Pigsy mask.

But the calm at the centre of this storm is the opera’s director, Chen Shi-Zheng, a long-haired, soft-voiced figure dressed in black, who presides over the 17 performers as they rehearse the opening scene. As Albarn’s strident oriental funk score blasts out from the PA, the cast come out from the wings. They are playing a tribe of monkeys, leaping around on all fours, shinning up huge poles, banging their chests and picking imaginary bugs off their heads as they whoop and grunt ecstatically. “Don’t be afraid to look foolish,” says Chen in Mandarin. “Use every part of your bodies and keep screaming.”

Sound advice for all occasions. Today on the Beeb has an excellent documentary piece on the subject - I am particularly impressed by the Chinese number magick involved - and Wikipedia offers an extensive backgrounder on the Chinese classic. The Monkey MySpace site has a clip and more pics to set the scene. V. nice for people who enjoy this sort of thing.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at June 22, 2007 07:17 AM