In a fine hall, resplendent in gold and red, an ancient matriarch presides over the great women of the Yang family, dressed in their finest silk and arrayed across the stage. It’s the 50th birthday party for her grandson, who as marshal of the army, is away leading the fight against barbarian invaders. Sensing something is wrong, the shrewd old lady forces her nephews to tell her the awful truth. He has just been killed, the war is going badly, the family and the nation are under threat. Reflecting her grief, the women, in perfect unison, each drops one cuff so that her sleeve is long enough to reach the floor, then sweeps up her hand so the white cloth can catch her tears. The movement is so precise, so stylised, that it seems like puppetry or animation, and it is completely thrilling.

The Warrior Women of Yang, from the China National Peking Opera Company, is rich with moments like this, when brilliant storytelling, choreography and stagecraft reach across profound differences in tradition and culture to communicate common human experience.

There are no male leaders left in the family so, after a sequence of exquisite tableaux, in which she persuades the emperor to ignore his ministers and appoint her as the new marshal, the matriarch leads her women to take control of the army, bringing along her young great-grandson who is determined to avenge his father’s death. We reach the interval with the plot and characters carefully laid out and the action about to unfold. 

From the moment the curtain rises again, spectacular set-pieces follow one after another as the army gathers, wins an initial battle, then has to overcome trickery and harsh terrain to become victorious. The costumes and make-up are exceptional: intricate layers of detailed silk are topped with complex headdresses and the women are embellished with flags and extraordinarily long feathers, which are moved and handled to create stunning images. The visual effect is multiplied by repetition, as the cast of 50 are used to excellent effect. Despite the complexity (and weight) of the costumes, there is very fast, highly interactive choreography, including some astonishing acrobatics and martial arts with sword and spear. The inventive stagecraft continues, for example, with horses beautifully portrayed without ever being shown, by the way performers held and moved decorated sticks to represent them. The whole effect is enthralling. I was often genuinely breathless with amazement.

Guo Yaoyao was impressive as the matriach, She Taijun. She held the centre of the story with intensity and power and allowed a strong cast to play against her. Li Shengsu as the General’s wife and Dai Zhongyu, a woman playing the General’s young son, were particularly strong, but all of the performers, and especially all the Yang women, were excellent. Their precision, timing and intensity were faultless. They were very well supported by the orchestra, which accompanied the singing fluently and maintained energetic percussion to frame the fights and battles continuously through the two-hour show.

There are cultural barriers to overcome. Many aspects of the Peking Opera seem strange to someone brought up in western culture. A language which uses pitch and glissando to communicate basic meaning, frames speech and singing in ways which confuse our expectations. The women’s voices sometimes seemed particularly artificial and exaggerated, unfortunately bringing to my mind a bad pantomime dame, when that is obviously not the intention. Some of the movement and posing seems to be caricature, because we’re not immediately “clued in” to the nuanced material it contains. To our ears, the musical “mood” can seem at odds with the emotional one. There are bewildering complexities of traditional symbols and roles, which make it difficult to relax into the show. You have to work at it: reading the summary and background beforehand, following the subtitles and making your own sense as it unfolds.

It is well worth the effort. After a short time I found the barriers began to drop and in this show, the spectacle, particularly in the second half, was immediately accessible. This was an encounter with an ancient tradition from far away, but good stories, well told, are universal, and this is a "must see".