Raise the Red Lantern has become something of a classic film in China since it was made in 1991, an adaptation of a book by Su Tong called Wives and Concubines. The film’s director, Zhang Yimou, went on to direct many others known to Western audiences, including Hero and The House of Flying Daggers. He also masterminded the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics last year.
Performed by dancers of the National Ballet of China, this version of Raise the Red Lantern varies slightly from the plot of the film but retains the same themes. As the gilded velvet curtain rises, revealing row upon row of paper lanterns (red, of course), the audience is prepared for a visually gorgeous display. Up to fifty dancers then weave across the stage waving yet more lanterns in a synchronised and mesmerising but occasionally clunky routine.
From there we follow the journey of a young girl as she is married against her will to a wealthy man, rather than to the man she loves. The dance of the wedding night is performed in shadow from behind a paper screen, which creates enormous tension as the exaggerated size of the husband highlights the girl's vulnerability and lack of power. The violence and emotion of the situation is heightened further as the two dancers burst through the paper, to the surprise of the audience.
Competing for the master’s affection are his existing wife and very jealous concubine. The red lantern of the title refers to a household ritual, whereby lanterns are lit outside the quarters of the woman whose bed the master will share on any given night. It is these politics of the household and the secret affair of the heroine with her original lover that provide the conflict, romance and movement for the majority of this ballet. Interspersed are scenes in a Peking Opera House, providing lively colour; and a playful scene using Mah Jong, in which dancers play the traditional board game around small tables.
The climax and highlight of this production is the execution scene, which is powerful and cleverly staged. The heroine and her lover, who have been caught in a liaison, await their deaths in front of another white screen. One by one, dancers wearing warrior costumes beat the white screen, leaving red gashes of paint and creating a frightening aural and visual landscape.
Overall, Raise the Red Lantern was engaging, occasionally confusing, but mostly remarkable. While the performances were polished and the choreography was excellent, Zhang Yimou’s visual effects were the real highlight - stunning and memorable.
the Arts Centre presents
Raise the Red Lantern
The National Ballet of China
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Venue: the Arts Centre, State Theatre
Dates: Wednesday 5 August to Sunday 9 August
Times: Wednesday – Sunday 8pm, Saturday & Sunday 2pm
Tickets: $129 - $49.00
Duration: 110 minutes
Bookings: theartscentre.com.au*, 1300 136 166*, ticketmaster.com.au, Ticketmaster outlets, the Arts Centre Box Office
*transaction fee applies