The National Theatre of China has returned to the Edinburgh Fringe with a compelling piece of physical theatre. A Life on the Silk Road is based on the adventures of Chinese national hero Zhang Qian. Zhang Qian’s explorations in the 2nd century BC opened the commercial links between China and the rest of the world. Credited with helping to found the famous Silk Road trade route, this story is inspired by his life.
A Life on the Silk Road is a successful alliance between the National Theatre of Chine and French composer, Uriel Barthélémi. Allowing the careful imagining of Wang Jung’s script to be brought to the stage through movement and music. This is complemented greatly by Mathieu Sanchez’s digital imagery.
Whilst the feeling of the traditional to allow Chinese history to unfold, being witness to A Life on the Silk Road feels as though the audience is bearing witness to a new chapter in Chinese theatre. Xu Yewen’s choreography is masterful, the discipline of the dance creating the translation of war and battles which encaptures moments in Zhang Qian’s life.
Wu Junda creates the role of Zhang Qian with the strength and determination to fulfil the heroic travels which unfold. This is carefully balanced with exploring his character. Puppetry is used to good effect, as the story takes on us from love interest to wife and family.
The ensemble aspect of this performance is overwhelming. Multiple roles are undertaken, from animals and fighters, to wind, rain and storm. Parts of this are effective, at times the lack of narrative makes it difficult to understand the flow of action and the direction the piece is taken.
The key characters enable the production to be a success. From the constant of Zhang Qian’s staff, the loyalty of his trusty horse, alongside wife and his confidante.
At 1 hour 20 minutes this production strikes a difficult balance. It is visually effective and where the story can be maintained, it is possible to enjoy the narrative. But it is left wanting. On the whole, a slower pace accompanied with a more distinctive narrative would add greatly. Perhaps as a longer production there is the potential to create a more enjoyable piece. Although even without keenly understanding the narrative, the performance and production is visually effective.
A Life on the Silk Road is at Zoo Southside as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. You can catch the production at 20.15 until 24th August.
Disclosure: We have media accreditation for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. All views and opinions contained are our own.