Review: DiaoChan: The Rise of the Courtesan

Arts Theatre
3 star rating
Ratings ranging from 2 to 5 stars for this play about a manipulative woman during the political machinations of the closing years of the Han dynasty. Our verdict: satisfying and enjoyable play, ably interpreted by a capable company.
DiaoChan The Rise of the Courtesan at Arts Theatre

Image: Arts Theatre

Show details

Show information

Theatre Arts Theatre

Closed here Saturday 28 May 2016

Cast and creatives


Angelo Paragoso - DongZhuo, Soldier & CaoCao

Arthur Lee - LüBu

Andrew Wong - WangYun

Benjamin Lok - LiSu & ZhangWen

Siu-See Hung - WangJingWei & DongZhuo’s Mother

Michelle Yim - DiaoChan, a courtesan


Ross Ericson
Ross Ericson


The Empire is in turmoil and the tyrant DongZhuo, with the great warrior LuBu at his side, is systematically putting to the sword all those who oppose him.

The minister WangYun fears for the lives of his family, but when both DongZhuo and LuBu show a lustful interest in DiaoChan - a singing girl of WangYun’s household - she comes up with a plan that could solve both their problems - a plan that would see DongZhuo fall and see her rise to the ranks of the nobility.


Performed in English.

ActDrop reviews

Peter Brown

Performance date: Wednesday 11 May 2016
Review star rating image

Screaming eunuchs open this play about the role of a strong and manipulative woman from the death-throw years of the Han dynasty in China.

The reason the eunuchs are screaming is because they are being tortured and butchered for treason by the agents of a tyrannical regent, DongZhuo, who has installed an 8 year-old boy as puppet emperor.

Now, in this situation, the other powerful nobles find themselves in fear of their lives - no-one knows whose name will be next on the agenda for political termination.

Minster WangYun (Andrew Wong) is particularly concerned, but finds an ally in his courtesan or 'singing girl', DiaoChan, who turns out to be a manipulative woman who uses her beauty and charm highly effectively to seduce both DongZhuo and his warrior-henchman LüBu to turn them against each other - or as she aptly puts it: "setting dog against master".

DiaoChan: The Rise of the Courtesan

Image: Arthur Lee as LüBu and Benjamin Lok as ZhangWen

In the process, DiaoChan hopes that she will rise through the ranks of the nobility.

In the 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare's death, this play has many similarities with the Bard's work - a matter that hasn't failed to dawn on director and adaptor, Ross Ericson.

For example, there are times when characters address the audience directly through soliloquy and their dialogue sometimes rhymes.

And like Shakespeare's tragedies, the body-count is substantial.

This, of course, leads to the organisational issue of how to remove the corpses from the stage which is here achieved by sliding screens in front of the bodies so the actors can get up and leave.

Unfortunately, I found this a little tedious after a while, slowing down the proceedings unduly and, after all, we know that the actors are not really dead so we can tolerate them getting up in darkness and leaving discreetly.

DiaoChan: The Rise of the Courtesan

Image: Angelo Paragoso as DongZhuo and Michelle Yim as DiaoChan

That minor irritation aside, Ross Ericson might have taken some (perfectly acceptable) liberties with the original texts, but he's managed to achieve a good balance between drama and comedy in his reworking.

There's a liberal sprinkling of humour throughout, and at one point we meet DongZhuo's bossily down-to-earth mother (well-played by Siu-See Hung) who instantly sees through DiaoChan's machinations, and who speaks with quite a strong Lancastrian accent.

There's also good work from other members of the cast, including Angelo Paragoso as the wily, top-dog politician who nevertheless falls victim to DiaoChan's charms, and Arthur Lee's LüBu not only has the physical presence to play a formidable warrior, but also conveys a sense of worldly immaturity and naivety.

And Michelle Lim is a highly confident and guileful DiaoChan, though there were times when I would have preferred her to be just a little more subtle in demonstrating her manipulations - a case where less is sometimes more, perhaps.

The costumes are colourful and appear authentic, even though some of the material is necessarily modern - but that didn't spoil the effect.

What is striking about this play is that it ably blends cultures whilst preserving their differences, and the play exposes a universal human condition - in the world of power and sexual politics, there is little difference between cultures the world over.

Overall, I found this a satisfying and enjoyable play, ably interpreted by a capable and determined company growing in confidence as the show progressed.

Red Dragonfly are on a worthy three-year mission to present Chinese classics - they've already enjoyed success with their first production 'The Autumn of Han' - keep a look-out for their next show: 'Monkey: Journey to the West'.

External reviews

The Reviews Hub - Maryam Philpott

3 star rating

"Ericson in his directorial hat keeps the action moving briskly until the significant deaths start to occur, after which the consequences of DiaoChan's activities begin to drag".

[Maryam gave the show 3.5 stars, but we only use whole-star ratings]

The Upcoming - Catherine Sedgwick

3 star rating

"High quality theatre and acting, superbly written, original, very relevant and with comedic flair".

The Stage - Dave Fargnoli

3 star rating

"... the company shows tremendous ambition, but this unwieldy production ultimately falls short of greatness."

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