Monkey magic: Theatre of Image’s Monkey… Journey to the West

This review appeared in an edited form on artsHub.

The Chinese legend of the Monkey King – purportedly born from an egg on top of a mountain – is the stuff of legend. So, too, are the 16th century novel based on the story, Journey to the West, and the popular television show from the 1970s, Monkey Magic. The story of the chaste monk Tripitaka and his quest to gain enlightenment, and bring the teachings of Buddhism from India to China, like all great road-trip stories, it is not so much the destination but rather the journey which is important. Here, as Tripitaka is accompanied by her three trusty disciple-cum-chaperones – Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy – it recalls the grand quest stories that form the cornerstones of the literary canon – Don Quixote, The Canterbury Tales, The Odyssey, and Orpheus in the Underworld.
Produced by Kim Carpenter’s Theatre of Image, Monkey… Journey to the West is a grand musical adventure, featuring richly textured costumes, a simple and inventive set, and a healthy dose of theatrical flair. Incorporating large- and small-scale puppets and physical theatre with a hint of pantomime, it is a show in the tradition of commedia dell’arte, heavily influenced by clowning and buffoonery and play-fullness; with a heart of gold, and a seamless blend of mythology, adventure, action and wit, there are echoes here with the work of other theatrical dreamers such as Julie Taymor.
Under the direction of Carpenter and John Bell, Donna Abela’s adaptation of the story is fashioned into a tale advocating peace, harmony and compassion, a message that resonates as strongly today as it did five hundred years ago. Despite being billed as ‘Monkey,’ it is Tripitaka, the monk (played, perhaps in a nod to the television series, by Aileen Huynh), who is the main character here. Played with grace and good humour, Huynh’s Tripitaka is a man seeking enlightenment and is very much aware that survival cannot come through the self alone, but rather relies on the help of friends and companions. Enter the deliciously disgusting Pigsy (Darren Gilshenan), the somewhat simple Sandy (Justin Smith), and the immortal and mischievous Monkey (Aljin Abella) – while each companion is originally perceived as a monster in one form or another, each sees the error in their ways after experiencing Tripitaka’s compassion, and vows to protect the monk on his quest. Together, they form a strange band of unlikely heroes, and soon have us cheering for them on their epic quest, as they encounter and foil attacks from various monsters. Ivy Mak, Anthony Taufa and Lia Reutens bring character, life and panache to these (literally) larger-than-life creatures, while Troy Honeysett and Team 9Lives (Tim Farley, Joshua Tieu and Jair Coronado) provide support as everything from Monkey’s henchmen to demon spirits, birds of prey, and parts of the set.
On Carpenter’s simple set, the action and characters become the key, and clothed in Carpenter’s rich and fantastical costumes, there is never a dull moment. Although the story is somewhat episodic like in many other great journey stories, Abela’s script makes the most of its unique humour, wit and inventiveness, and creates characters and situations we can delight in. Peter Kennard’s music and songs, while lively and a splendid accompaniment for the play’s action, are perhaps not as memorable as they could have been, and the music did at times drown out the actors’ voices.
There are many moments to love in Carpenter and Bell’s production, many clever sequences and inspired theatrical touches which make this show something special and wonderful. Despite giving the story the requisite scale to unfold upon, the Riverside Theatre felt a little too big at times; perhaps a slightly smaller venue like the Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House would make some sequences – like the skeleton puppet sequence at the end of Act One – literally pop out into the audience and draw us further into this already larger-than-life tale of unlikely heroes, strange creatures, and monkey magic.

Theatre playlist: 63. Hero, Hans Zimmer & John Powell

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