A small boy and a man sit facing each other, cross-legged, on one of 21 large oblong boxes. At first, the man seems to be telling a story that is brought to life behind them as a single warrior monk appears centre stage; or perhaps the man is a divine being, or a puppeteer who can manipulate events. Before we can decide, the wooden boxes begin to move, thumping and thudding forwards as they roll towards us on their long sides, revealing openings, like coffins without lids from which living people emerge.

This is an extraordinary collective work for a group of male performers who have none of the physical homogeneity of a corps de ballet, yet seem to think and move as one, as they appear and disappear among, between and inside the boxes.They use them as building blocks, constructing shapes, such as a fortress, a forest or a mountain, and then knock them over: at one point, each box, placed vertically and containing a standing man, falls sideways, knocking the next box over, one-by-one, like a stack of dominoes. Another time, the performers lie in boxes piled sideways on top of each other, like corpses in a catacomb, then they all begin to move simultaneously. The performers’ courage is breathtaking: they climb up and stand on top of the upright boxes then fall off, or they suspend themselves inside a box, wedged in like an abseiler, as the box rotates and they are left hanging upside down. Meanwhile, the little boy somersaults in between them, skipping, flipping and hopping over them like a flea.

It is hard to describe the style of movement: think of a cross between Kung Fu, break dance, acrobatics, and Tai Chi, with an extraordinary ability to contain and then release energy. There is an exceptional degree of integration between sets, sound and movement. Brzóska’s live music for strings, percussion and piano has a restraint and clarity that is perfectly in balance with the sounds made by the performers and their props; the simplicity of the pale ivory-grey floor and walls make the stage feel like interior of one of the boxes, with the ‘fourth wall’ as its opening.

‘Sutra’ is a word that echoes many connected meanings: the sermons of Buddha, an aphorism or eloquent and succinct expression of truth, a guideline, or in Sanskrit, a thread. Is this cultural appropriation? Perhaps it is, even though it has the blessing of the Abbot of Song Shan Shaolin Temple Master Shi Yongxin and these are authentic Buddhist monks from the original temple. The work says much, in its elusive and allusive way, about co-operation, sharing, tolerance, and the need to contain violence. It is gently amusing when Ali Thabet steps into a box and then seems to walk down a flight of stairs inside it, but deeply disturbing when he is covered by the box and the little boy knocks on the top calling, ‘Ali, Ali!’. By turns humorous, exciting and shocking, this is a magnificent theatrical work, which carries within it many truths.

There is one more performance at the New Theatre, Oxford on Saturday 24 March: it is not to be missed.

Maggie Watson

23rd March 2018

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