Wales Millenium Centre – until 12 January 2020
Reviewed by Rhys Payne
The King and I, which recently landed at Wales Millennium Centre, is a dramatic piece of classical theatre that would excite those who are a fan of this style of show and/or are fans of the original film. This production tried to stick as close to the original movie as possible, which was made almost seventy years ago, and I understand this was a different time but there were some very uncomfortable to watch scenes for a modern audience.
Like the film, the musical follows the life of Anna Leonowens the teacher on her travels to Siam. While there she experiences extreme culture shock and runs into somewhat of a conflict with the King that leads to many hilarious but also striking scenes. This is a musical that depicts what its like travelling and teaching abroad (as it demonstrates concepts such as the language barrier and culture clashes) which many people do not think about which is a very clever inclusion. What was also extremely clever was the fact that the concepts there were discussed earlier in the show reappear throughout which helps keep the audience engaged and allows them to follow the narrative easier. Despite this there were a few points in the story itself I have issues with. Like I have said earlier I completely understand that this movie/musical was developed many, many, many years ago but some of the scenes were difficult to watch. The whole show revolves around the ideas of patriarchal societies, multiple female lovers for the men and how women are only meant to be looked at. There is one particular scene in which a female character only says “oh no” and “what are we going to do now?” which have become female stereotypes and tropes that we, as a twenty-first-century audience, are not familiar with watching. On top of this was also a rule in place that no one’s head could be higher than the King (the King explicitly stated this) however constantly people towered over him and stood up while he was sat which completely contradict this rule he laid out. This again was very off-putting and distracting for the audience.
A highlight of this production occurred during the opening scenes. The show opened with a magnificent boat sailing across the stage which beautiful but also very clever how this piece of the set was utilised. The boat ‘sailed’ with elegance across the stage and the whole atmosphere of the stage was so perfect, the only thing that let this otherwise stunning scene was the staging of dialogue. The majority of the talking in this scene happened between actors while they were facing upstage meaning the audience could not see their facial reactions or see the words leaving their mouth which to me is half the fun of watching a show. The staging after this was somewhat disappointing for scenes such as the inside of the palace. This was simply a stone wall with moving bannister which moved way too much and was very distracting throughout. This is a show that keeps the focus on drama but stripping back on over-the-top staging, dance numbers, pyrotechnics etc which helped to showcase the performance of each person as, for the audience, there were very few distractions.
The highlight performance of this show had to be Jose Llana who played the King of Siam. He was hilariously funny and embodied everything this character needed to be. There has never been a character that at the beginning of the play I disliked (due to his arrogance and mistreatment of other characters) but at the end of the production, he had all my sympathy and affection. This is the mark of an extremely talented performer as he can manipulate the audiences feeling to whatever the actor wants. He is very professional and had the audience laughing throughout. I do wish that this character was given more songs to perform as when he did, his voice was beautiful to listen to.
Another excellent performance was by Cezarah Bonner who played the Kings first wife who delivered this role with a heightened sense of status and regality which worked excellently with this role. She also managed to balance the softer and more relatable side of the character with ease. A standout moment for this character was the song ‘Something Wonderful’ which was performed excellently and showcased the talent and vocal ability of Cezarah.
In conclusion, the King and I was a beautifully performed production that harks back to the theatre of yesteryear. This is a show for people who enjoy a more classical side of theatre and/or are fans of the original movie. It is a show for a more mature audience due to the nature of the show and the issues it deals with. Also, they were scenes in the show that were throwbacks to the film, and you could see the divide of people who have seen the original film and those who have not by the vigour of their reaction. A more contemporary and modern viewer it will be at times hard to watch. But despite all this, it was still a beautiful and stunning performance to watch with every member of the cast working extremely hard with the level of skill and performance of every person clearly on show. I would rate this performance as 3 out of 5 stars!