Diao Chan the Rise of the Courtesan (Arts Theatre Studio)
Red Dragonfly's production runs until the end of May
Red Dragonfly's new production is an adaptation of an ancient Chinese story about a courtesan who outwits an evil despot through the powers of seduction. It's a pity that the show itself doesn't have similar skills: I found it exceptionally hard to fall in love with Diao Chan: The Rise of the Courtesan.
Diao Chan is a strong, intelligent courtesan in a male-dominated 14th century China where women are considered second class citizens. Among bolshy, vain men Diao Chan's beauty is her greatest asset. Armed with that and a formidable amount of cunning, she has worked her way into the household of minister WangYun, where she lives as a ‘singing girl' – one up from a prostitute. But WangYun is on unstable ground. Chancellor DongZhuo (effectively running the country while the emperor is too young) is unpredictable and violent and WangYun fears he may one day be executed arbitrarily. Diao Chan and WangYun plot together to get both Dong Zhuo and his adopted son LuBu to fall in love with Diao Chan. The love tussle drives LuBu to topple his father and suddenly one tricksy ruler is swapped for what turns out to be another.
Ross Ericson's production of Diao Chan has clearly been staged on a shoestring but without the imagination that so often drives theatre makers with no cash. The basic set includes three entirely unnecessary screens that are wheeled about clunkily by the cast during scene changes. There are several other odd directorial decisions, including when Diao Chan dances for the chancellor. I'm no expert on Chinese history, but I'd wager that belly dancing probably wasn't the usual way 14 th century Chinese courtesans entertained their punters.
The acting is uneven too, with only Arthur Lee's LuBu convincing as the ridiculously in love young soldier. The rest of the performances land jarringly on the side of the pantomime. It probably doesn't help that the Arts Theatre's ‘studio space' is really not made for theatre. The noise from the street interrupts the show and on press night there was a lot of clomping around from the floor upstairs.
Ericson has also written this adaptation and it labours through many overblown scenes with dialogue that drags. Though the story itself is interesting, the play doesn't do justice to the tale of a remarkably savvy woman who is more than a match for the army of men that surround her.
Diao Chan: The Rise of the Courtesan runs at Arts Theatre Studio until 28 May.