DiaoChan: The Rise of the Courtesan at Above the Arts, London – ‘tremendous ambition’
One of the legendary Four Beauties of ancient China, DiaoChan is depicted as a courtesan who topples a despot with a cunning plot, setting a cruel father against a credulous son.
The second show by Red Dragonfly to bring a classic Chinese story to Western audiences – after their successful Autumn of Han in 2013 – this production has a stilted formality, which hinders the archetypal tale’s telling.
Heading a spirited if uneven cast, Michelle Yim is a witty and wild DiaoChan, mocking and manipulating the powerful men who see her as their property. She has significantly greater agency here than in some versions of the tale, with Ross Ericson’s adaptation exploring more complex motivations than the usual dutiful altruism.
DiaoChan’s story is sometimes viewed as a sort of Chinese Macbeth, and indeed there is something Shakespearean in the plot’s mix of marriages, mistaken identities, and pernicious scheming. Ericson’s script labours the point, though, frequently underlining these self-evident parallels: a warlord repeatedly calls for a horse as a battle turns against him and DiaoChan herself is cast aside with the words “get to a nunnery”.
Lavish costumes provided by Nancy and Anthony Yim go a long way to establishing the mood, as does the red light which drenches the stage. Scenes are delineated by sliding screens which would give the changes an elegant smoothness if they weren’t being regularly jolted out of place.
Much like the play’s characters, the company shows tremendous ambition, but this unwieldy production ultimately falls short of greatness.
We need your help…
When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.
The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.
We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.
Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.