Monkey by Jamie Hewlett
Thinking of the Gorillaz does not naturally conjure thoughts of the Opera and Orient. From the very beginning, however, the Gorillaz have undoubtedly challenged the essence of musical definition, divisions and style through their chosen virtual existence. Theirs is a statement in industry against the mega-producer’s conveyor belt; the much needed mockery of countless manufactured bands of the past few decades. In the phenomenon of pop culture masquerading as a cartoon band led by ‘2D’, ‘Russel’, ‘Murdoc’ and ‘Noodle’, perhaps it is no surprise then that Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett decided to foray into the foreign world of 16th Century Chinese novelist Wu Cheng’en. As a result, they’ve created a stage production not only in a language they themselves don’t speak, but also infused newly-created original musical instruments and original imagery into the older, more traditional style of Chinese instrumentation and visual culture dating back to the Ming Dynasty.
Indeed this 21st Century Monkey: Journey to the West is rather different from other interpretations of Wu’s work (the anime series my brother used to love, Dragon Ball Z, is case in point). Alongside actor/director Chen Shi-zheng (creator) and Jean-Luc Choplin (visionary), the Albarn/Hewlett duo worked together again to produce a dramatic, operatic adaptation by Chen. As well as a feast for the eyes thanks to Hewlett’s personal illustrative aesthetic, their staging sees Chinese singers, nearly a hundred acrobats and martial artists; meanwhile, the orchestra includes members of the UK Chinese Music Ensemble, Demon Strings and Sense of Sound. Premiering at the Manchester International Festival last summer, it has since travelled to France, the States, Germany, and most recently here at the London Royal Opera House in July. And for UK viewers of the Beijing Olympics, the above monkey may be familiar as a result of viewing the BBC’s ‘Journey to the East’ animation sequence spin-off on replay.
The time I started taking a liking to the Gorillaz project was shortly before the release of their compilation album D-Sides back in November of last year (admittedly in part due to having been a fan of Blur back in the heyday). But having watched Alan Yentob’s fantastic piece on BBC One’s Imagine (‘Damon and Jamie’s Excellent Adventure’), my opinion transformed into something more characterized by deep-seated respect for them and the others who managed to bring together so many disparate cultural elements that a seemingly foreign audience can still synthesize and appreciate as one. I was sad to have not had the time to see Monkey at the Royal Opera, especially as the punkish, graffiti-inspired set (akin to Hewlett’s Tank Girl etchings) must have looked a wonder in plain view. But for those like me who couldn’t make it (and for those who went and enjoyed), Albarn’s original score came out on album last month — a definite purchase for those who like musicals and the Far East.
Monkey: Journey to the West out now on XL Recordings (video preview below).
Sarah Badr © MMVIII
See also: Journey to the West (Official Site)