The Crossroads Inn, a classic of Peking opera, begins with Jiao Zan, an unjustly exiled general, being led onstage in handcuffs by two soldiers. By the end of the scene the handcuffs are on one of the soldiers and Jiao Zan (played by Liu Kuikui) is bossing the other around - the audience is in stitches.
But the real stars of the show are Ren Tanghui (Wang Haoqiang), a warrior loyal to the general, and Liu Lihua (Liu Bo), the owner of the Crossroads Inn where Jiao Zan and the two hapless soldiers have lodged for the night. Not knowing they are on the same side, Ren and Liu are instantly suspicious of each other. What ensues is one of the most well-known scenes in Peking opera: the ‘fight in the dark’ between Ren and Liu. On a fully illumined stage, it is up to the two actors to convey the idea of ‘darkness’ through their gestures and mannerisms. Timing is everything here: as Liu reaches out, Ren moves just beyond his grasp; Ren swings his sword, and Liu bends over at just the right moment to avoid being sliced in half. It is an elaborate choreography of missed opportunities which goes on until Jiao Zan himself bursts in – a well-placed kick from Liu sends him sprawling as well! A masterpiece of acrobatic feats disguised as slapstick comedy. Liu Bo was particularly impressive in his acrobatics, with so many front flips and somersaults that it was hard to keep track of where he was.
As is typical of Chinese opera, each character is a highly stylised caricature of what they represent – the brave warrior, the down-to-earth innkeeper, the imposing general. The animated, stereotyped movements of the actors, together with the dramatic facepaint for each character, make it immediately apparent what their roles are in the short comedic sketch. I hardly needed to glance at the translated surtitles.
The second play is just as action-packed as the first. Drawn from the popular folk legend of the Monkey King, it tells the story of how the Monkey King and his companion Zhu Bajie rescue the daughter of a wealthy merchant and her maid from the clutches of a leopard spirit – by disguising themselves as the two ladies! Here the full regalia of Chinese opera is showcased, with fantastically elaborate costumes, gilded headdresses and yards of flowing fabric. The falsetto singing of the actors is also shown off, accompanied by the rhythmic cadence of traditional Chinese percussion and woodwind such as the suona. Multiple fight scenes provide ample opportunity for the actors to show off their prowess in martial arts. We have an truly jaw-dropping sequence of spinning leaps from Liu Lie, who plays the Leopard, and synchronised spear-throwing tricks from his troupe of followers. Ma Yanchao also makes for an agile Monkey King, rivalling Liu in displays of acrobatic dexterity.
All in all, a top-notch performance from the China National Peking Opera Company, and a vastly entertaining cultural experience not to be missed!