Freefalling through time

Beyond Time by U-Theatre at the Esplanade Theatre, Singapore
February 13, 2016
Joy Wang X.Y

Beyond time (時間之外) begins with a lone man rotating centre stage, his robe gathering like waves around his lower body. Around him, the world eerily but still quickly summons nature’s tempest. Yet the centre holds and continues undisturbed. It reminded me of the “cyclones that rage in the south seas” which “form circles where edges are made of wind and rain but whose centre is so still that a bird or even butterfly caught in the eye of the storm wouldn’t be harmed.” That I’m quoting Irène Némirovsky here probably points to the universality of experience and why not, since U-Theatre (優人神鼓) reaches for a similar level of broad identification.

The ascetic rigor of the performers’ craft contrasts with the insistent, rhythmic drumming creating its own layers of intricate meaning, its own metaphors, its own echoes. This is theatre born of restraint, ecstasy, of zen-like calm; the primal beat of the drum simulating the palpitations of the heart producing a viscerality that the movement deliberately abstains from. It would be hard not to admire the performers supreme emotional abnegation, their intense physical control or the seriousness of their approach.

Beyond TimePhoto courtesy Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay
Beyond Time
Photo courtesy Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay

Sometimes however that taoist discipline is almost excessively self contained. The performers seem to spiral in a free-falling universe, each occupying pockets of isolated space as if traversing through a spatial-temporal vacuum. Very often groups placed in opposition to each other remain just that-neat patterns on a stage floor with little emotional coordinates between them. Yes, it stands beyond time but must it also stand outside life? There is stillness that is disquieting, that provokes thought and there is stillness that is suffocatingly, self-referentially esoteric. And thus, it is often the simplest, least contrived moments that remain longest in memory. In one image, a man clothed in white (a wayfarer perhaps) arm raised heavenwards walks towards a looming circle. To where you question? Fate? Death? Life? I’m not sure but, at least, we care enough to ask.

In a way, the limitations of Beyond Time also point to the limits of theatre. U-theatre, whose craft is learned at high altitudes, often performs at one with the nature it invokes. Presumably there, their moral vision of the universe-stage as cosmos, movement as ritual, performer as ether, gains sharper focus. Perhaps there too, the chanting, seemingly imitative of (what I think is) satsang tradition, would lose some of its uneasy didacticism. After all, the point of theatre is to show not state. Within the confines of an impermeable, static environment (which only resemblance to the world it alludes to lies, ironically, in its onscreen projections) Beyond Time makes demands of our imagination that requires one suspension of disbelief too far.