Home » London Theatre Reviews » Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui & Antony Gormley with monks from the Shaolin Temple – Sutra

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui & Antony Gormley with monks from the Shaolin Temple – Sutra

Sutra: Credit Andree Lanthier
Sutra: Credit Andree Lanthier

The thing about organised religion is that it can be riddled with ambiguities – most, if not all, claim to be advocates of peace. Yet there have been so many ‘holy wars’ waged over the course of history. The very term ‘Salvation Army’ seems a contradiction in terms: I have yet to meet a member of that organisation who behaves as though they belong in the military. And then there’s the sort of choreography in Sutra, a stunning display of martial arts, performed by Buddhist monks from the Shaolin Monastery in China. Buddhism, according to the show’s programme, “prohibits violence, and yet the Shaolin Buddhist monks have been perfecting their fighting techniques for centuries”. Make of that what you will.

There is a non-monk in the company, Ali Thabet, who seems to go through a process of gradually assimilating into the well-drilled group, culminating in a finale in which, but for the difference in costume, Thabet has completed a journey that started as being a complete outsider and ends with some sort of acceptance. Though I’m rather stumped as to quite what happened to turn hostility and confrontation into sudden reconciliation – I can only take comfort that all’s well that ends well.

The movement is remarkable, particularly from a boy monk, who pivots and somersaults his way through the performance with impressive skill. He also enjoys an excellent rapport with the audience, for instance putting his hand on his chest, as though breathing a sigh of relief, after a particularly hair-raising moment. The said moment was precisely and minutely choreographed, as these things should be. The key is to make the moment look spontaneous, or at least fresh, and Sutra, despite a decade-long production history, remains vigorous and a delight to watch.

The use of wooden boxes that never leave the stage is inventive, being used as anything from dominoes (with monks contained therein) to sleeping quarters. Thabet and the boy play with miniboxes downstage stage right, arranging them in such a way that appears to dictate what happens on stage on a much grander scale. The performance space is used brilliantly, and it is not, thankfully, a case of showing off aggressive moves for the duration of the show – the cool and collected nature of Buddhist reflection and meditation finds its home in this production just as comfortably as the frenetic activity of the monks when in gladiatorial mode.

Perhaps I am too much of a stickler for detail, but there were occasions when all the boxes weren’t as perfectly aligned as they could be, and a tad too much time was taken up making configurations absolutely flawless, to the point where I began to wonder if the production might flow more smoothly if negligible imperfections were simply left as they were. At times the stage was very busy, occasionally for busyness’ sake. Once the astonishing physical capabilities are well and truly established in the first half, in the second, there’s little for the production to go except emphasise more of the same.

But there’s no denying the spectacle that Sutra offers its appreciative audiences. A five-piece chamber band skilfully adds to proceedings, and it is easy to forget that these are practising religious monks on stage, not a dance company whose members will go off to other show at the end of this tour. All things considered, this is a thrilling and dynamic production, demonstrating joy in simplicity and a consummate balance between stillness and movement.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

One of Sadler’s Wells’ most exhilarating productions, Sutra has toured around the world and played to sell-out audiences as far afield as Singapore, New Zealand, Mexico and the US.

Seen by over 160,000 people worldwide in 60 cities across 28 countries, this critically acclaimed collaboration between choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Turner Prize-winning sculptor Antony Gormley and 19 Buddhist monks from the Shaolin Temple in China is an incredible spectacle of athleticism, exploring the philosophy and faith behind the Shaolin tradition and its relationship with Kung Fu within a contemporary context.

With Antony Gormley’s striking set of 21 wooden boxes and Polish composer Szymon Brzóska’s specially commissioned score performed live, Sutra is an incomparable work that has captured the hearts and imaginations of people the world over, as one of the stage’s most sophisticated productions and a true work of art.

Monday 26 – Wednesday 28 March 2018


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