Monkey: Journey to the West is a stage adaptation of the 16th Century Chinese novel Journey to the West, by Wu Cheng'en. It was conceived and created by the Chinese actor and director Chen Shi-zheng, together with the British musician Damon Albarn and British artist Jamie Hewlett. However, the original idea came from Jean-Luc Choplin, head of the Chatelet Theatre in Paris .
The production received its world premiere as the opening show of the inaugural Manchester International Festival, on June 28, 2007 at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, where it ran until July 7. It was subsequently staged at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris between September 26 and October 13 2007. The production received its U.S. premiere at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, SC in May 2008. A further run was planned for the Berlin Staatsoper in July 2008, but instead took place at the London Royal Opera House.
Billed as a "circus opera", the show is Hewlett and Albarn's first major collaboration since Gorillaz. Albarn composed the musical score while Hewlett designed the visual concept, set and costumes. The adaptation for stage has been written by Shi-zheng, who also directs the production. Dramaturgy is by David Greenspan. The show features Chinese singers and 70 Chinese acrobats and martial artists. The orchestra put together for the production includes members of the UK Chinese Music Ensemble (led by Cheng Yu), Demon Strings and Sense of Sound.
In addition to the production, the Manchester International Festival also ran a programme of educational workshops in local schools, in partnership with the Chinese Arts Centre. In the programme, local children were introduced to the tale of Journey to the West, and learnt about various aspects of Chinese culture, music and dance, including mask-making, puppet-making, Tai Chi and Kung Fu.
Hewlett and Albarn included characters from Monkey: Journey to the West in an animation sequence titled "Journey to the East." The BBC used the sequence to introduce coverage of the 2008 Summer Olympics, held in Beijing.
Monkey hatches from a stone egg and makes his home in the forest. Over time, he becomes obsessed with seeking immortality, and travels the world to find a teacher. He finds Subodhi in the Mountain of Heart and Mind, who gives him the name Sun Wu Kong - the Monkey with the Realisation of Emptiness.
Monkey dives into the Eastern Sea and comes across the Crystal Palace of the Old Dragon King, where he requests to be given a weapon. He is given a magical iron rod, and the Old Dragon King is also cowed into giving him his helmet, armour and shoes.
Monkey travels to heaven to demand recognition of his newfound power. There he finds seven fairies preparing a banquet for the birthday of the Queen Mother of Heaven. Incensed that he has not been invited, he begins to eat the Queen Mother's magical heavenly peaches, and fights off each of her divine guests who try to prevent this. The Queen Mother then calls upon Buddha to deal with Monkey.
Buddha presents Monkey with the challenge of escaping his palm. Monkey is unable to do so, and so he is imprisoned by Buddha.
Five hundred years later, Guan Yin chooses Tripitaka to go on a mission to bring back the Holy Scriptures from India. Pigsy, Sandy, the Dragon Prince (who is transformed into Tripitaka's white horse for the journey) and Monkey (released by Tripitaka from his prison) are chosen to accompany him.
Believing she can achieve immortality by eating Tripitaka's flesh, the White Skeleton Demon adopts disguises in an attempt to fool Tripitaka and his companions. Monkey sees through the disguises, and on each occasion kills the White Skeleton Demon. Tripitaka, however, is horrified by Monkey's display of violence and expels him from the group.
Tripitaka and the other pilgrims travel to the cave of the Spider Woman, who tries to seduce Tripitaka. Pigsy is distracted by the Spider Woman's sexy companions, allowing the Spider Woman to trap Tripitaka. Sandy rushes off to find Monkey, who then defeats the Spider Woman. Feeling sorry for expelling Monkey, Tripitaka asks Monkey to rejoin the group and so he does.
The group travels to a volcano. The only way to pass is to extinguish the volcano using a magic fan belonging to Princess Iron Fan. She refuses to give the fan, and at first Monkey is unable to defeat her. With help from Guan Yin, he transforms himself into a bee, which the Princess swallows, and Monkey is able to defeat her from inside. He claims the fan, and the group continues on its journey.
The group arrives in paradise, and is given the scriptures by Buddha. Tripitaka is created Buddha of the Purest Merit. Pigsy is made Janitor of the Altars. Sandy becomes a Golden-bodied Arhat. The white horse becomes the Dragon prince once more. Monkey is made Buddha Victorious in Strife.
The soundtrack is only based upon, but not a direct recording of the musical. It entered the UK Albums Chart at #5 on release and Number 1# on the UK indie chart. The track Monkey Bee entered the Top 200 UK Singles Chart based on downloads alone at #196.