How does one review a musical that has been performed countless times since its inception over half a century ago? There is not much a reviewer can applaud about or comment on that hasn’t already been applauded before or commented upon.
In such a scenario, the reviewer’s job becomes much harder but they also assume the critical responsibility of assessing the performance’s relevance within the context of the times it’s performed in.
While watching The King and I at Manchester Opera House last night, this question was the one posed to us. Not once, but repeatedly. Be it the show’s director, Bartlett Sher discussing it in the programme or the incredible performers enacting it out on stage to a theatre packed to the rafters.
Every time a theme was introduced or reiterated, it felt as if a mirror had been placed in front of us and we were asked the question, “Do you see a glimpse of the current state of affairs?”.
More often than not, the answer was a resounding yes and that explains why the show has been adored and critically appreciated throughout the years. However, this is not to say that the story it presents is faultless.
The narrative itself is grounded in a time when Westerners portrayed themselves as saviours and civilising influences on the “barbaric and archaic” cultures of the East. The vistas it presents and the experiences that the characters go through almost have a Kiplingesque vibe to it.
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Leaving the connotations of Kipling’s work aside and strictly focusing on his descriptions of the visuals and the sounds, credit must be given to Michael Yeargan’s work on the set, Catherine Zuber’s costume design and orchestral team for creating an atmosphere that does justice to the bustling bazaars, the vivid colours and the melange of sounds and smells.
In spite of all that, the performance that the actors put on is impeccable and one could ask for nothing more. Jose Llana shines in his role as King of Siam, presenting all facets of this complex character with equal gusto.
As the show nears the end, much like Anna herself, one can’t help but admire the king for his concern for the kingdom, his acceptance of what he doesn’t know and his boyish sense of humour.
Annalene Beechey, who plays Anna, leaves nothing more to be desired of her character. Anna’s persona proves to be the perfect dramatic foil and the epitome of western values to the King’s nature and his eastern ideals. The two actors share amazing on-stage chemistry and this is on full display during Shall We Dance?, one of the show’s most iconic songs.
Their supporting actors are no less extraordinary either. Yet, amongst such a powerful cast, the two that stood out for me were Kamm Kunaree, who played Tuptim and Billy Marlow who played Louis. In many ways Kamm Kunaree’s role seemed to be written as an eastern embodiment of Juliet.
In fact, the subplot of Tuptim’s doomed romance and the associated dance performances seemed strangely reminiscent of the Prokofiev classic. This shouldn’t be too surprising though given the original choreography was done by Jerome Robbins, the famous Broadway choreographer.
A lot of the original essence is preserved by Christoper Gatteli and the combined efforts are displayed in their full glory when the Small House of Uncle Thomas is played out on stage.
Billy Marlow, and all the children that comprise the cast put on stellar performances as well, often using their innocence to draw attention to the foibles of the adults around them.
At the very start, I alluded to the fact that the show is able to draw our attention to events that still have relevance in this day and age. This is very much true in the instances where blatant sexism is brought to the fore or the fragility of knowledge is exposed.
Both examples serve to show that despite two centuries worth of development, our society is still plagued by the very issues that deemed Eastern cultures backwards and obstinate in face of progress. While The King and I presents that by showing the East as the one stuck in a rut and the West as a paragon of reason and scientific thought, it is unreasonable to subscribe to that view, given the ubiquity of the aforementioned issues.
Needless to say, as long as these issues persist, musicals such as The King and I would continue being relevant and widely applauded. Yet, it’s the audience’s responsibility to not just watch the musical for its glorious set design or fabulous acting, but to think more critically about the underlying issues it sheds light on and in doing so, they might find confusion in conclusions they concluded long ago.
This article was written by Aayush Chadha.