Review: Mr Donkey

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It is rare here in Durham to see a production that one could confidently call unique. Most productions are either rehashes of the great works of Shakespeare et al or new interpretations of already existing more modern works. So when I was offered the chance to see a new stage adaptation of a film called Mr Donkey first released in 2016 (a film I confess I had not heard of before being asked to go to this production) and to be performed entirely in Mandarin I was feeling quite out of my depth to put it mildly by virtue of this prospect.

So it was in this frame of mind that I went to see the second performance of this production on Friday evening, totally unsure of what kind of play it was that I would end up seeing. It was with only the aid of the programme and a quick Google of the plot in my mind just as the curtain opened. What followed over the next two hours or so was a production that revelled in the dramatic tradition of the farce with its own distinct sense of humour at a breakneck pace which all came together to produce a charming and enjoyable melodrama.

The whole cast had a keen sense of where the humour was to be found in the writing

In the interests of providing a little background, the plot of the play which certainly laid its hat down in the realm of the absurd centres around a failing school in rural China in the early 1940s. The faculty of the school learn in the first act that they are to be subject to an inspection. The farce begins when they learn they must present five members of staff when they only have four working at the school. This springs the whole play into the farce and the absurd, with the school deciding that they will use a local and uneducated blacksmith to pose as an English teacher in the hope of passing the inspection.

As the Director’s note in the programme makes clear, one should not just consider Mr Donkey as a mere farce without satirical bite, rather much of the writing and themes seek to highlight “the complex interplay between human nature and morality”. This balance was not always maintained with the comedy playing a larger role in this production but this seriousness laid just below the surface as the play developed. Like with most plays contained within the broad tradition of the farce, if one was to write down the plot of the play in full the raising of eyebrows would follow. And, Mr Donkey is no exception to this rule.

Yet despite a plot as convoluted as Fermat’s last theorem, this entire production makes it work. On its own terms, this production was in possession of its own idiosyncratic vitality characterised by high levels of energy and enthusiasm throughout and a quickness and light footedness which certainly helped with the issues of the plot I have highlighted.

There is a bona fide sense of uniqueness in this production

The whole cast had a keen sense of where the humour was to be found in the writing and worked well dealing with some of the more thudding gags and the genuine clever moments of comedy that are peppered throughout the play. Speaking in terms of wider cultural themes, perhaps the highest praise available is to state that this production supported the old adage that humour really is a universal language with the propensity to break down often prohibitive problems of language.

Coming back to what I said at the start of this piece, there is a bona fide sense of uniqueness in this production. Not just for the obvious reasons of the play being performed in Mandarin but also for reasons of adaptation and form which makes this production stand out from the other forthcoming productions of this term.

In all, this was the kind of production that is best enjoyed on its own terms. Mr Donkey was most enjoyable when you allowed yourself to be carried away with the melodrama and in turn appreciate the comedic skill which was the defining feature of this production.

Image credit: Yoghurt Theatre Company

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