The Peasant Prince

The Peasant Prince
Play by Eva Di Cesare, Sandie Eldridge and Tim McGarry. Based on the book by Li Cunxin. Monkey Baa Theatre Company Production. Director: Tim McGarry. Gardens Theatre, Brisbane. 6-9 July 2016, and touring nationally.

At only an hour long The Peasant Prince continually punches above its weight emotionally for a five tissue experience. It’s a vivid piece of storytelling that is skilful, theatrical and inspiring.

Monkey Baa’s latest touring work for young people and the young at heart, is based on Li Cunxin’s popular illustrated book which in turn was based on his novel Mao’s Last Dancer, his rags-to-artistic-riches autobiography of how a young Chinese boy from an impoverished backgroundbecame a world famous ballet star.

The work begins as an adult Li is about to open in Housten Ballet’s production of The Nutcraker as the Prince and then flashes back to his childhood in rural China during the Mao years. What follows shows his upbringing in a loving but poor family, his mother’s zealous belief in him and his abilities, his indoctrination of Chinese principles and culture, his life-changing audition and being accepted into Madame Mao’s Dance Academy, and his moving to America to dance with the Housten Ballet. It’s a modern-day fairytale with a happy ending of youthful dreams fulfilled.

A cast of four, three of whom play multiple characters, gloriously bring this tale to life in a series of evocative vignettes helped by some excellent video imagery and music. John Gomez Goodway was an athletic Li who handled the transition from kid to adult with sincerity and passion. Jenevieve Chang impressed as the continuing female presence in his life, be it loving mother, disciplined dance instructor, or overbearing arts benefactor. Jonathan Chan did good work as the stoic but admiring father, whilst Edric Hong’s turn as the stinky footed brother brought laughs.

Michael Hankin’s picture-frame set with its rear gauze curtain was the perfect conduit for David Bergman’s striking images of Mao’s China, which were lit with intelligent and atmospheric lighting by Sian James-Holland. Director Tim McGarry’s production was fluid, invigorating and frequently awash with pastel tones reminiscent of Anne Spudvila’s original book illustrations. It was a loving and honest adaptation of Li’s treasured memoir.

Peter Pinne 

Photographer: Heidrun Lohr. 

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