Recreating the magic of Monkey in classic quest story
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Recreating the magic of Monkey in classic quest story

It's a classic quest story: A Buddhist priest, Tripitaka, and three creatures in need of redemption – Monkey, Sandy, and Pigsy – go on a pilgrimage from China to India to bring back some sacred scrolls. They have many adventures along the way, battling monsters and demons, as well as squabbling with each other.

For many Australians, their introduction to Wu Cheng'en's Journey to the West came from the dubbed Japanese TV show Monkey, shown on the ABC in the early 1980s. But Kim Carpenter, who conceived, designed and co-directed a new stage version of the story, was not one of them.

Lia Reutens, centre, on stage in Journey to the West.

Lia Reutens, centre, on stage in Journey to the West. Credit:Jamila Toderas

"I never really watched the TV show. It was never really part of my life," he said.

But the director of Theatre of Image had seen stage adaptations in Hong Kong and Beijing of Journey to the West – "one of the four pillars of Chinese literature" – and thought it had potential as a theatrical production in Australia. The show opened at the Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, on Thursday.

Darren Gilshenan as Pigsy, front left, with Aljin Abella as Monkey behind.

Darren Gilshenan as Pigsy, front left, with Aljin Abella as Monkey behind. Credit:Jamila Toderas

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"It's a true classic – a moral tale, a road story, a quest that has spiritual and religious connotations," Carpenter said. "Also, it's a lot of fun."

The production, on which Carpenter worked with writer Donna Abela and co-director John Bell, took several years of development and made its debut in Brisbane last year.

During the course of his research Carpenter finally caught up with the old TV series.

"I thought it was funny and quirky with the dubbed voices and bad wigs. I could understand why it has a cult following."

Darren Gilshenan as Pigsy, left, with Aljin Abella as Monkey.

Darren Gilshenan as Pigsy, left, with Aljin Abella as Monkey. Credit:Jamila Toderas

Filipino actor Aljin Abella, who plays the proud, excitable Monkey, was another who had never seen the TV series.

"I was a fan of the book. I grew up just after the TV show."

He said playing the mischievous character was a lot of fun and he enjoyed seeing the character develop over the course of the story.

"He has to learn to work with people as part of a team."

Darren Gilshenan, who plays the greedy Pigsy, was a fan of the old series.

"It was naughty!" he said

"This is what I would describe as a spectacle ... it's got a multi-ethnic cast, puppetry, songs, audiovisual, kung fu and mixed martial arts, parkour – and a great story to boot."

Although this was a new adaptation of the story, there were many references to the old show that its fans would recognise, he said.

While some of the story's themes and some of the bigger puppets might be intimidating for the very young, it was aimed at a wide audience, he said.

"It's very much a family show, for ages seven and up."

Monkey: Journey to the West is on at the Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre until April 25. Bookings: canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 62752700.