How far is one willing to go for love? Would you cross the entire length of China on foot, or tear down a wall? According to Glowtape Productions’ debut production The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey, that’s precisely how deep the love between Chinese folktale heroine Meng Jiang Nu and scholar Fang Qi Liang was.
Part historical fiction, part love story, The Great Wall follows the Chinese legend of Meng Jiang Nu (West End star Na-Young Jeon), a villager and doctor’s daughter living under the rule of Qin Shi Huang (George Chan). When Meng Jiang Nu saves scholar Fan Qi Liang (Nathan Hartono) on the run from conscription to build the Great Wall, they fall in love and get married. But tragedy strikes when Fan Qi Liang is forcefully taken away, and Meng sets off on a pilgrimage across China to save him, only to find that he has been buried alive under the Wall. In grief, Meng’s tears bring down the wall to uncover his remains.
Written by Jean Tay, The Great Wall was well researched and actually contains grains of historical truth. In the opening number for example, the Emperor essentially gives a history of his role in uniting the warring states into a single country, while the male and female ensemble members are clearly divided across gender lines, with the former playing soldiers and the latter as villagers, reflecting the men being sent to the army leaving the women to take care of the villages.
The Great Wall’s doomed lovers surprisingly, only share the stage for a few scenes. The lovers’ initial meeting is straight out of a romance novel, where Fan Qi Liang charms Meng Jiang Nu with a beautiful poem, quickly endearing her to him in a whirlwind of emotions and ‘stolen glances’. In the second act, a duet entitled ‘In Dreams’ between the two star crossed lovers made us feel our protagonists’ immense desire for each other even as they were separated by immeasurable distance, a feat that was helped by both performers’ incredible vocal talents. One wishes that Nathan Hartono and Na-Young Jeon were given more opportunities to appear in scenes together to develop better onstage chemistry and truly portray a legendary love.
Interestingly enough, beyond the romance, The Great Wall focuses more on the themes of solidarity and anti-establishment, a very different direction than we expected from its source story. Fan Qi Liang is first and foremost a defender of his family’s heritage and culture, resolutely carving a poem of resistance into the Wall as an act of defiance and refusing to work for the Emperor. The Emperor himself is written as a corrupt, mad ruler steadily being poisoned in both mind and body, and George Chan easily commanded authority with his stage presence and worked well to portray him as a stereotypical villain. The crux of The Great Wall pits the suffering proletariats against the Emperor, with Fan Qi Liang and Meng Jiang Nu acting as heroes of the people, the voice of the oppressed and representing a resistance against the Emperor’s despotism.
As ‘One Woman’s Journey’, a large chunk of the musical naturally focused on Meng Jiang Nu’s actual journey across China as she witnesses endless suffering and heals the sick. This was done during most of the second act, with director Darren Yap cleverly using the set to evoke the Chinese landscape. When Meng Jiang Nu is crossing a rushing river for example, the entire ensemble worked together to support her weight as she walked across wooden planks carried by them. This was a creative and visually impressive feat, and was one of the most well-executed scenes.
The Great Wall is heavily reliant on protagonist Meng Jiang Nu to carry the plot forward. Na-Young Jeon espouses Meng Jian Nu’s virtuosity and is probably the hardest working actor in the entire musical, appearing in nearly every scene and always clearly articulating her lyrics. Jeon was given a chance to show off her incredible vocal range in ‘If I Am Alone’, which, supported by a haunting chorus of women from the ensemble, brought down the Wall. This is testament to the strong sense of solidarity that the female ensemble established throughout the show. A particularly powerful scene at the end of act one sees each of Meng Jiang Nu’s fellow villagers each leaving a personal effect with her to remember them by before she embarks on her cross-country journey, reminding her that no matter where she was, she would never be alone.
Besides the three stars, The Great Wall is also supported by a strong ensemble of big names and rising stars, including Candice de Rozario, Neo Swee Lin, Lim Kay Siu, Thomas Pang, Ethel Yap, Joshua Lim, Erwin Shah Ismail and Kimberly Chan. In particular, Flilipina actress Monique Wilson, who plays Meng Jiang Nu’s mother, portrayed a warm mother-daughter relationship with Na-Young Jeon, and her presence was felt at every step of her journey. Meanwhile, veteran actor Lim Kay Siu left an impact as the fierce army commander in spite of the limited times he appeared onstage, genuinely appearing threatening as he raised his sword against Fan Qi Liang.
The Great Wall was also effective at creating a believable world that easily allowed audiences to envision the era and scenery before them. Conductor and composer David Shrubsole’s score was cohesively composed, allowing audience members to ease into the period and setting of the musical. The score incorporated Chinese instruments such as the guzheng, Chinese cymbals and a gong, and was a fitting tribute and reference to the story’s Asian origins, and was brought to life by a capable live orchestra. Costume designers Li Ruoxuan and Yvette Ng also provided costumes of a high quality and production value, that appeared historically accurate and were aesthetically pleasing onstage.
In addition, The Great Wall employed huge, multifunctional set pieces that hid plenty of surprises at every turn. A wooden house in the village, for example, transforms into a part of the Wall with a single flip of the panels. The Great Wall itself was big enough to impose its height upon both the cast and audience, cutting an impressive figure that lived up to its name. However, one area of improvement that The Great Wall’s set was in need of was smoother transitions between scenes, as set changes were noticeably audible, and even distracting at times.
Ultimately, in a year that has introduced a couple of high-concept new musicals, The Great Wall is a one that has all the ingredients it needs to be successful, but stops just short of going a step further in its execution. Though ambitious, The Great Wall might have benefitted from a clearer and tighter overall direction and stronger characterization. Nonetheless, The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey is completely watchable, with plenty of memorable moments and well-composed songs throughout, and should be attended for Glowtape’s courage in attempting to produce a local musical that can rival that of the West End or Broadway.
Ticket giveaway time! Want to catch Glowtape Productions’ The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey onstage? We’re giving away one pair of tickets to the final matinee show on 30th July! All you have to do is:
Winners will be notified on Facebook!
The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey plays at the Drama Centre Theatre until 30th July in English with Mandarin surtitles. Tickets available from SISTIC