Review: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Antony Gormley, monks from Shaolin Temple - Sutra - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 3 - 6 April 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 5 April 2013

Anyone remember the catchy emblem of ‘70s disco – Everybody was Kung-fu fighting? Well, these “funky China men” don’t hail from “funky Chinatown” but the Shaolin Temple by Songshan Mountain in China’s Henan Province, established over 1,600 years ago and the key national Buddhist Temple of China for just the last three decades.

Although these monks are elite exponents of Kung-fu (as well as Tai-chi) they are also avowed pacifists and so we would need to make one slight amendment to the lyric in order for the chorus of Carl Douglas’s one-hit wonder to have meaningful relevance to this production. Everybody was Kung-fu dancing; they’re fast as lightning with expert timing and – just occasionally – the risks taken were a little bit frightening!

This was the sixth time I’ve seen Sutra and it remains as fresh as ever. In fact some elements appeared to be entirely new, although kept within a familiar and now much-loved structure. Over 160,000 people (100 for every year of the Temple’s existence) have now seen Sadler’s Wells’ most successful production, here embarking on a nationwide tour to celebrate its fifth anniversary. The title, Sutra, means a thread that holds things together and it has become both a metaphor for any set of rules and a term with spiritual significance since it was used to describe the sermons of Buddha.

If the monks are the show’s life force, it’s triumvirate of creative geniuses are Antony Gormley, Szymon Brzóska and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Gormley is generally best known for his featureless, life-sized human sculptures but here it is human-sized, open-topped wooden boxes that provide the minimalist artistic setting for the work. It is simple, pure genius. Brzóska’s austere, edgy score, perfect for audibly replicating the ideals of a Spartan, disciplined life, was played live on a platform separated by gauze cloth at the back of the stage, and is equally remarkable. Cherkaoui’s choreography and direction drives the movement of bodies and boxes with the precision of an advanced mathematician, the tactics of a grand master at chess and the vital, unflagging pace of a marathon runner.

This review is slightly obsessed with numbers since I found mathematical patterns in almost every aspect: in one sequence the boxes are lined up like piano keys, each one hiding a monk within. One by one, solitary men emerge; perform a routine before disappearing to be replaced by another. If I mentally numbered the boxes 1 to 16, from left to right, the number 13 or 1 & 3 seemed to dominate every numerical sequence. Coincidence?

The changes to this run of Sutra include many personnel; not least that Cherkaoui himself is not performing the central role of the western man with raggedy beard, baggy jacket and sportswear. This is taken by Cherkaoui’s close associate, Ali Thabet, looking as much like the work’s creator as possible. At the beginning, he sits cross-legged atop a box like all the others in every respect save that it is metal, playing a game with a young monk sitting facing him. The wooden blocks they are assembling and disassembling are tiny models of the Gormley boxes and, rather like Greek Gods playing on Mount Olympus, the patterns they create with these wooden pieces are dictating the layout and assembly of the set and the other performers.

As the years have passed the young monks from earlier iterations have grown up (and two have graduated into the adult ranks of this show). The incumbent for this piece has an infectious glee in performing his huge acrobatic tumbles and mimicking the quirky, angular head and neck movements of the heroic monkey warrior, Sun Wukong, a central figure in Buddhist folklore. It would appear from reference to earlier programmes that not a single performer from the 2008 premiere was in this cast. By contrast, the small band of musicians, including Brzóska, is composed identically – percussionists exempted – as it was back then.

The boxes are assembled into vertically-stacked bunk-beds, like library shelves with people in them; as the petals of a flower; in configurations like the stones of Stonehenge; as multiple hiding places for the monks; as pedestals for human statues; and one even becomes a lifeboat into which the entire troupe managed to fit. But it is when the monks are let loose from their containers that the fun and excitement lets rip with huge gravity-defying somersaults and hip-horizontal kicks. The “little bit frightening” moments came with the fear that hands and bodies must get trapped between the falling or tightly-packed boxes and in the fiercest hand-to-hand combat with long staffs (which every itinerant monk is required to carry). These young men are a human equivalent to the nuclear deterrent: their pacifism is built upon ferocious warrior skills perhaps in the hope that this means they will never have to be used in anger. They also provide one of the most exciting and quickest hours (time always flies when you have fun) that you are ever likely to spend in a theatre.

One of the funniest stories I’ve heard was told by someone who, on a previous tour, had the job of chaperoning the monks – 24 of them, shaven-headed in their traditional robes – on a trip to Thorpe Park. Oh, how I wish to have been a fly on those roller-coasters! Their Sutra dispenses a shed-load of Karma.

Leave a comment

You must be signed in to post comments.

Sign in now

What’s On