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DiaoChan: The Rise of the Courtesan at Above the Arts, London – ‘tremendous ambition’

Siu-See Hung and Michelle Yim in DiaoChan: The Rise of the Courtesan at Above the Arts. Photo: Ross Ericson Siu-See Hung and Michelle Yim in DiaoChan: The Rise of the Courtesan at Above the Arts. Photo: Ross Ericson
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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.

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Updated but uninspiring adaptation of the classic Chinese legend