Born from an egg, and thrust into chaos: it’s the start of a tale that is representative of us all. Our experiences and our interactions dictate the direction or the sort of life we will lead. Perhaps we’re born into circumstances that seemingly provide no hope and we are stripped of decisions. Sometimes, we’re thrown temptations. Do we falter? Are we so self-absorbed and deluded by our feelings of self-worth and grandeur that damn everything and everyone, we will have what we want? Do we fall from grace and strive for enlightenment? Or do we fall victims to the darkness of the underworld or the empty promises of a perfect life that’s not ours and created in delusion? Are we lucky enough to be given that second chance at redemption and at the end of the day, what do we do when we’re cast out on a journey to find ourselves?
Two weekends ago, I journeyed to yet another re-telling of the classic tale in Chen Shi-Zeng's, Damon Albarn’s, and Jamie Helwett’s Monkey: Journey to the West at NYC’s Lincoln Center (herein referred to as “Journey”), and this past weekend, I began my Odyssey with Monkey in Enslaved and his Journey to the West (herein referred to as “Enslaved”).
*There are SPOILERS AHEAD for Enslaved: Odyssey to the West*
Whereas my Odyssey quickly revealed a Post-Apocalyptic NYC as the setting for my quest; Shi-Zeng's, Albarn’s and Hewlett’s Journey sets up a colourful vision of a fantasy world with acrobats, artistry and costume design paying tribute to Chinese culture with dynastic flair. Both Enslaved and Journey are beautiful in their respective rights - Enslaved through broken pillars and crumbled buildings of familiar New York sites, littering its landscape with blood red flowers and soaring blue skies; and Journey through the amazing set pieces with long cloths and dazzling spectacles of every colour, and skilled acrobatics - both presentations of the Tale of Monkey do not differ in one aspect in that they both insert the Classic story with modern sensibilities.
The modern twist of the Journey production was represented in the music. Albarn and Hewlett are known (but not solely) for their work with the music group Gorillaz. Hewlett takes on artistic duties, often creating characters on the bizarre side - with broken or missing teeth, soulless eyes, green skin, lengthened limbs and a general colourful, sharpness to his characters. The art on stage for the costuming was vastly different from Hewlett’s art in the mini-animation reels to tell parts of the story, or the character art displayed for the show. Albarn’s contributions are musical. I’ve always loved Gorillaz for its electronic experimentation infused into music of a diverse collection of genres. Hearing the blending of classical Chinese music layered with Albarn’s beats was amazing to me by its unique qualities while honouring Eastern sounds. He often does a good job of interweaving styles and that is true here as well.
But I believe, that is where the influence ends in the Journey production.
Enslaved writer Alex Garland (and yeah, I could not stop thinking of 28 Days Later’s apocalyptic grainy nature in the feel of Enslaved’s world) injects a twist underlying many of the issues and plot devices dealt with in the classic tale while maintaining a connection to elements of the Classic story. Story locations from the Classic and the Journey production get a mechanized overhaul in Enslaved, which feel apt whether its a sprawling factory with lots of fire and hot metal to represent Journey's Volcano City; or the Giant Mech hand as a shout out to the Hand of Buddha that imprisoned Journey's Monkey for 500 years. I found it to be a great re-telling and unique in its own right. Most deviations Garland creates are while at first seemingly radical, result in the same morals and plot points. Tripitaka, a 14 year old male monk in the Journey Classic, is portrayed by a teenage girl in Enslaved. This changed dynamic leads to a small rivalry for Trip's attention between Pigsy and Monkey (moreso Pigsy than anything) but in doing so, it aptly portrays Pigsy’s character as a lust filled, and sort of crude being.
In Journey, he’s easily lured by his lust of the female kind and other ‘sinner’s’ delights, and this in fact is what got him booted from the good graces of the holy ones. Represented as grotesque and greedy as pigs usually are, the giant kiss mark on Pigsy’s belt buckle and the girl tattoo on his arm was enough to get that point across, when it could not really be told as clearly in The Journey production without altering the story. I found it a great use of costume usage to spell out exactly the sort of character Pigsy is, though I’m sure his overzealous love of machinery helped establish that as well. The one thing overall that the game lacked but was ever present in the play was a strong sense of comedy. Pigsy was very much there for laughs as much as Monkey was a mischievous, arrogant and a sort of funny thing. The rivalry existed but purely for laughs.
Image Source: www.thegamingliberty.com
While Journey’s Monkey tired of his carefree life in the Jungle and the realization that he was mortal and wanted to be a god himself; Enslaved’s Monkey wished to be bound from the shackles of slavery thrust upon by the Post Apocalyptic nature of the world and then by Trip. This Enslavement of Monkey happens in Journey too, where it is part of the atonement for Monkey’s crimes against the heavens having eaten the sacred fruit from the Queen Mother of Heaven's Garden. Again, Enslaved may have jumped around plot points and pulled from the basic ideas of the Classic tale but the underlying results were the same albeit they may not have readily been apparent except for one.
The biggest deviation from Trip’s character in Enslaved to Journey was her desire to seek revenge on Pyramid and the enslavers. I was not sure how to feel about this. Truthfully when I watched Journey, Trip’s character was perhaps the most dull. Tripitaka had the power to control Monkey when he got out of hand and did banish Monkey at one point from his Monk Party mistaking Monkey’s murderous frenzy as just that (Monkey was protecting him and saw through the disguises of the underworld demons) but as far as interesting, Tripitaka was there only to serve as a thing Monkey had to learn to respect on the Journey to Enlightenment.
Journey’s Tripitaka was pure of heart, only once almost falling victim to the loose Spider Demons. In Enslaved, Garland had to write more into Trip’s character and giving her the drive to seek revenge probably had to be done. Why else would she want to go West and progress a story to free mankind when she herself was guilty of doing same to Monkey?
Image source: www.lincolncenterfestival.org
And this brings me to the conclusion of both stories: The end was Enlightenment. In Journey, Monkey and his friends attained Nirvana. The scene in the Journey production ends on a quiet note. Acrobats struggled to approached Buddha but all managed this and became Monks. In Enslaved, the question is posed if plunging the slaves into Darkness brings them a true sense of purpose by allowing them choice and not living in a made up world created by another. It brings everything back full circle - freedom from a blissful ignorance, now born from an egg and thrust into chaos. But it is your decision to control and the Journey is what you make of it.
Thanks to JM for giving the grainy, Post-Apocalyptic feel to my sideways building in the header image.