Monkey and his Magic

Roma St Parklands (Grin & Tonic)


Concept by Bryan Nason, with inventive contributions by the GNT2 team

Profit share production

“It is with our thoughts that we shape the earth”, as Kuan-Yin, the glorious Goddess of Mercy, says in GNT2’s latest interpretation of the immortal story of the Handsome Monkey King, which has bewitched hundreds of generations of Easterner and Westerners alike.

If the world were to be shaped by the thoughts of the naughty but charming Monkey, with his lack of discipline and bad manners, and his friends Pigsy the pig-monster (food and sex) and Sandy the river monster (anger and violence), it would be a sad place indeed, but the moral of this metaphorical 16th Chinese story is that by travelling westwards to India to find the sacred scriptures, they will be reformed and reshaped into creatures of goodness and compassion.

So it’s an archetypal tale of the need for right behaviour and reformation, but the story is anything but dull and moralistic. Many of us grew up on the television series of the same name, and Bryan Nason and his GNT2 team have made it their own, having given us three versions over the years.

The 2006 version, as performed on stage in the Roma Street Parklands, is perhaps not as colourful and energetic as the award-winning performances at the 2006 Brisbane Festival, but it’s still drawing enthusiastic crowds, and not just of young families. Whether it’s the immortal appeal of the story, the loyalty that GNT2 have built up over the years since they were the Grin’n’Tonic Theatre Troupe, or simply the chance to rejoice at the sheer physicality and ingenuity of a very talented team I don’t know, but there’s no denying the show’s appeal.

Monkey, the self-proclaimed Handsome Monkey King, Great Monkey Sage, Equal of Heaven, and Guardian of the Five Peaches of Immortality (and he’s modest, too!), is now played by Ross Balbuziente, with the engaging smile and capacity for naughtiness that make this character so easy to love and forgive, and his physical tricks, like those of all the GNT2 troupe, are breath-taking.

The young priest Tripitaka, a Holy Fool chosen by the Buddha to lead them on their journey, is now played by Niki-J Witt, and although she’s not as ethereal and androgynous enough to convince me that she’s a timid boy, she interacts to perfection with the three nuisances she has to put up with. Ross Lowe’s Pigsy is very funny indeed, especially when his lustful desires refuse to be suppressed, and he keeps breaking away to chat with the audience, to the uproarious laughter of his victim and various young kids, who were enjoying it all hugely, even the bits that they (thankfully) didn’t fully understand.

Vanja Matula is as brilliantly multi-faceted as ever, first as Sandy the fish-monster, then as the Old Baboon with his bright red buttocks (there are lots of bum/fart/piss jokes in the production, all harmless and very funny), and finally as Tripitaka’s high-stepping horse – although I noticed that he didn’t carry her on his back for more than a minute at a time.

The cast have updated the story with lots of modern references, much as Gilbert and Sullivan scores are re-invented today, so that the Spider Queen is accompanied by a dragon-like raptor toy, and Tripitaka, in danger of being boiled alive, has a dash of soy sauce added to the cooking liquid. Even Amada Vanstone gets a passing reference, to the delight of the audience.

The production is alive with the usual GNT2 touches Kuan-Yin, the Eternal Goddess of Mercy, is played by Bryan Nason in her manifestation as an ancient gardener who reads the narrative aloud from a pop-up book, while the Panther Demon (Ronny McKenzie with all his impressive tats on full display) does a very erotic strip-tease, which quite thrilled the elderly ladies sitting next to me as he came up and unrolled his ankle-bands under their noses.

As usual, miracles are achieved with the simplest of sets and costumes, and nobody could call this a spit-and-polish production in the style of Cats or The Lion King , but that surely is its triumph. It’s proof again, if we needed it, that it’s the story that matters, not special effects, and that if the narrative is strong enough, and a production can demonstrate commitment to the ideals the story espouses while having lots of fun along the way, simple story-telling in the park can give children and adults alike joy and enlightenment.

These are troubled times the people of the world are greedy and quarrelsome, awkward and lacking in grace, as the Goddess of Mercy tells us. We need Monkey and Tripitaka to show us that there is a way, and that even if the writing on the sacred scriptures has faded, we can write our own story and help to save the world.

Designed and directed by GNT2’s collaborative directorial team

Playing until the end of April Fridays at 7pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 7pm, Sundays at 4pm

Duration: 90 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Sat 4th February 2006)