More than a poem, Sutra is a collection of aphorisms or short images. In the white box of the stage, life-size wooden boxes cover the performing space. In the left-hand corner a man (a Westerner) and a boy (a ten-year-old Shaolin monk) sit cross-legged on a silver block, playing with tiny bricks. As the wooden toys get displaced, so do the larger boxes, rolling around as if invisible, giant hands were moving them. Leaving the game to the side, the Westerner – Ali Thabet, in the role Cherkaoui originally took – jumps on the boxes to observe them more closely, holding a staff which seems to be balancing on an uneven surface. Finally, he plunges the staff into what turn out to be cubicles, fishing out a grown-up Shaolin monk in grey, typical attire.
From then onwards it is only action. Seventeen Shaolin monks display their knowledge of martial arts from sword and staff fighting to bare-handed techniques and impressive jump sequences that would intimidate even a professional gymnast, all in the ever-changing background of the blocks. Ali can only stare at the monks’ proficiency as they go through their daily routines. Waves of movement touch the shores of an invisible kingdom as they perform their sequences in canon. Guards on a wall, walking up and down armed with spears, protect the realm, which can only be reached by boat. Epic images of the birth of the Shaolin Temple in the Chinese Middle Age as the non-violent Buddhist monks were called to defend their fields in the Hehan Province virtually become incarnations of the angry deities of the Buddhist pantheon. The tradition continued, thanks to imperial approval and, jumping forwards a couple of centuries, the Westerner’s interest – as their mindful techniques became part of mindless action films.
Sutra is the tale of an observer that slowly gets involved in the object of his fascination: he ends up participating in the monks’ final sequence. He starts off as the architect of an imaginary world where bricks gets magically reorganised with his companion, sometimes a young monk, sometimes a monkey. Ali is the Westerner with slapstick coordination that we see disappear down an imaginary staircase in a silver box. The monk boy becomes the friend this clumsy character and his guide into the Shaolins’ world, helping him as he feel excluded by walls or by the solitude of a monk’s cell. The narrative is driven by the rearrangement of the blocks in different configurations: from a lotus to a cube, from a Stonehenge-like landscape to a diagonal of domino pieces lying on one side. One is never sure if this is Ali’s dream or reality.
The little monk can be the mythical monkey Sun Wukong, travelling on a silver cloud with a magical staff who ferries the monks across an imaginary river as they have to leave a cubic structure that is being dismantled – but he can also be the incarnation of the young Buddha sitting in prayer on a pillar surrounded by a circle of praying monks, whose contemplative stillness Ali disturbs, confused by his companion’s many transformations. As we see the monks rearranging the blocks to form bunk beds or cells, he enters Ali’s box producing a moving duet as they try to fit into the small space. So there are two imitations of Rodin’s The Thinker (1902), one of which is levitating at the top of the box. Still the fascination with the Other goes both ways, and so the monks take a night out in town wearing Western attire – shirt, smart jacket and trousers.
The monks’ soft yet strong movements are reflected in Sutra’s basic and clean aesthetic: a white empty space, wood blocks and the pale colours of the costumes, which accentuate the introspective, poetic dimension of their action. The piece dynamics go from stillness to action-laden sequences, accompanied by Szymon Brzoska’s beautiful, melodic composition. But the Shaolins’ movements follow another dynamic that cannot be captured by Western music. They override it, creating and interesting combination. As a Shaolin monk counting the beads while reciting his mantras, these are the contrasts in energy that Cherkaoui, Associate Artist at Sadler’s Wells since 2008, channels – successfully depicting stillness in action and action in stillness.



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.