Sadler’s Wells, London
March 27, 2018
It’s hard to believe that it is a decade since Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Sutra premiered in the UK. It has lost none of its impact in the interim, although I found myself appreciating the subtleties that I had overlooked in the sheer wow factor of the physicality when I saw it first time round.
Adam Caree’s lighting is beautiful and subtle and complements Antony Gormley’s set perfectly. The wretched black box that has become the default for so many venues in cash-strapped times, far from being a neutral space, is one that sucks all light in and makes it impossible to see large amounts of many productions, especially when accompanied by low lighting and ubiquitous smoke. The white space of Sutra, in contrast, takes the premise of Buddhism that white comprises all colours and symbolises both life and death, heat and cold. It makes the pine of the boxes glow with warmth when they are refuges and makes them as stark as coffins.
Szymon Brzóska’s score for violin, viola, ‘cello, piano and percussion is equally lovely. It has a flavour of Chinese music without being a parody, but also journeys through impressionism and serialism. It would be equally at home on the concert platform as on the stage. Musicians are semi-exposed behind a gauze and raised above the stage – almost a celestial setting!
Sutras were originally ancient and medieval Indian texts and occur in Hinduism and Jainism as well as Buddhism where sutra or sutta refers to canonical scriptures. ‘Sutra’ can also be translated as ‘threads’ and it is perhaps this meaning that Cherkaoui and Gormley explore most.
Ali Thabet creates the sense of an innocent abroad as the lone dancer in the piece. The audience is immediately aware of his thirst for knowledge of the arts of the Shaolin temple, but equally how far he is from even scratching the surface. Sometimes this is demonstrated in wit: the monks stand on upright boxes, momentarily creating a gorgeous living sculpture in typical Gormley style, lit like a late afternoon, winter sunset. One by one, they bend knees, assess the drop, and leap onto the ground as the audience gasp collectively. Thabet contributes by knocking over his box! Anger is vented on both sides. A monk sweeps the model bricks from Thabet’s box and takes it for his own use: Thabet bangs angrily on the box as he is effectively excluded.
In another gasp-inducing sequence, the boxes are carefully lined up, the monks step in, with Thabet at the end and then the initial box is shoved hard so that they topple like dominoes. The impact on the bodies inside is palpable, although the monks remain rigid in corpse-like poses while Thabet visibly bounces inside his box to end in a jumble of limbs and shaken body.
With a background of repelling at least six hundred years of raids and incursions, the monks show both their meditative and combative aspects. Staves (gun) and kwan dao weapons are swirled, slammed into the ground and used to parry as monks roar cues and threats in symbolic battle. They tumble like acrobats, flick flack after flick flack, leap after leap. Initially in traditional day robes, they also appear in natty black suits with pale blue, open collared shirts. This lends a rather sinister air to the proceedings, as if ordinary businessmen have suddenly turned into potentially lethal opponents and magic realism is just realism.
On a personal note, I have my own ‘sutra’ to add to my second viewing of the work. In the interim between my first and second viewing, I have been discussing at some length theories and practice of Buddhism (and especially tai-chi) with a friend. It has enabled me to see the production as if with new eyes as I am now aware of how seemingly impossible moves have initiated from deep in the centre of a tradition that hones to perfection efficient movement and use of the body combined with harnessing of energy that in so many of us mere mortals is wasted.
Although martial in name, the camaraderie engendered on stage radiated throughout the auditorium by the curtain call and, I’m sure, sent everyone away glowing. Just don’t try this at home!