The Peasant Prince

Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre, April 9

Peasant Prince1

Jenevieve Chang, John Gomez and Edric Hong. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Monkey Baa Theatre Company has a reputation for its delightful stage adaptations of children’s books and The Peasant Prince is another charmer.

It tells the true story of Li Cunxin (pronounced Lee Schwin Sing), whose autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer was published in 2003 and subsequently made into an Australian film by director Bruce Beresford. Li also wrote a picture book about his life called The Peasant Prince, illustrated by Anne Spudvilas, and it is that version that Monkey Baa’s creative directors Eva Di Cesare, Sandie Eldridge and Tim McGarry have drawn on for their stage adaptation for children aged 6+.

Born in a village in Shandong Province in China, Li was the sixth of seven sons in an impoverished but very loving peasant family. An extraordinary opportunity came knocking when a delegation from Madame Mao arrived in the village looking for talented children to attend the Beijing Dance Academy. After initially being overlooked, Li was chosen as one of just 15 children from around the country and at age 10 he left his home for Beijing.

The training was relentlessly tough and Li was terribly homesick, but eventually he found the courage, fortitude and determination to succeed. Selected by Ben Stevenson, the artistic director of Houston Ballet, to go to the US on a cultural exchange, Li defected. After a diplomatic standoff when he was held in the Chinese Embassy, he was eventually released a free man.

Li danced with Houston Ballet for 16 years and was a guest artist around the world. After meeting Australian-born dancer Mary McKendry in London, they married and came to Melbourne in 1995 where he danced with the Australian Ballet. Li is now artistic director of the Queensland Ballet.

The Peasant Prince begins with Li waiting backstage to make his debut in The Nutcracker for Houston Ballet, with his parents in the audience. It then rewinds to tell his story up to that point.

The script by Di Cesare, Eldrige and McGarry is succinct without it ever feeling that it is just ticking off plot points. A story Li loved his father to tell him about a frog acts as a metaphor for what is to come and the writers create many lively little vignettes that speak reams about Li’s life and relationship with his parents and brothers, a dance teacher who encouraged him, and Stevenson.

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Jonathan Chan and John Gomez Goodway. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

McGarry’s direction, with movement by Danielle Micich, keeps the action moving swiftly on a minimal but very effective set by Michael Hankin featuring David Bergman’s beautiful video designs, which locate scenes as the story moves from the village to a school room to the dance academy and onto Houston. Hankin’s costuming is also very evocative, as is Daryl Wallis’s music.

The early scenes in China work wonderfully well with simple staging effects proving extremely eloquent. There’s a lovely sequence in which Li’s mother uses a blanket in various ways to suggest feeding, washing and drying her son with loving care. At the dance academy, two performers merely hold a pole to create a ballet barre.

The Houston scenes don’t have quite the same flow. A ballet rehearsal feels a little overlong and the coercion Li suffers in the Chinese Embassy doesn’t have the same clarity as the rest of the storytelling; I imagine children will be asking what was happening at that point. But overall it’s beautifully told.

As Li, John Gomez Goodway brings a wide-eyed, open-hearted exuberance and emotional vulnerability to the role that is very endearing. The other three actors – Jonathan Chan, Jenevieve Chang and Edric Hong – each play several roles and do an impressive job of slipping quickly between them to create various well-defined characters.

Running around 55 minutes, The Peasant Prince tells an inspiring story about courage, resilience, family love and following your dreams that kept the young audience engaged.

Li Cunxin was at the opening. Asked to make a short speech afterwards, which he hadn’t anticipated, he said he was deeply moved by the production. I imagine that young audiences will be touched, amused and inspired by it too.

The Peasant Prince plays at Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre until April 20 and then tours to 37 Australian venues. See www.monkeybaa.com.au for details.

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