The Shaolin Monks acknowledge a connection between their bodies and the different aspects of nature, namely earth, wind, fire and water. Their performances are not Jackie Chan-style stunt play, no, this is the real deal, a 1500-year-old art form and an elite expression of Zen Buddhism that will have you wincing in fear and gasping in wonderment at the same time.
The show begins with a voiceover describing the wars that the Shaolin Monks have endured, and how their kung fu was a spiritual response to the violence they have known, their skills originally developed to protect country and temple.
The performance proper begins with a child of about 5 years old who demonstrates his skills in Kung Fu. Then a further ten adult monks enter the stage and one by one present their skills. Their movements are sharp, yet fluid and acrobatic; it appears breathtakingly risky but these monks are trained and have their timing and concentration down to a fine art.
The performers warm up slowly, with displays simple dance-like moves which are both beautiful and impressive; the monks glide through the air and gracefully land in set positions on the stage floor. The entire production is packed with extraordinary physical feats as the monks perform back flips, break bricks over each others bodies, somersault, balance their body weight on their fingertips, walk over knives, and balance their entire bodies on the tips of spears.
One of the most amusing sequences features a monk holding his arm out while another monk breaks a wooden stick over it. The weapon-bearing monk then aims for the other’s head, and as if that wasn’t enough the battered yet spiritually centred monk finally bends over, head between thighs, before being smacked with the stick hard between his legs, giving new meaning to the phrase ‘balls of steel’.
Also on stage there are two female musicians, on drums and oboe, who play alongside recorded tracks of dance and techno music, attempting to give a modern twist to things though it doesn’t really work in the context of this production. It succeeds in creating a tempo, yes, but it feels both inauthentic and out of place.
The uninventive scaffolding set is also disappointing, failing to evoke the Shaolin temple where the monks’ training takes place. This production would have been stronger I thought, if it had stuck more closely to the traditions and had a little more imagination injected into it.
Despite this it was impossible not to get wrapped up in the show and I found myself silently praying that nothing would go wrong, that a sword wouldn’t accidentally fly off into the audience, or that no one would get skewered during the blindfold fight sequences. Of course nothing like this happened.
Watching the mystical and sacred art of these Zen Buddhist monks transposed to a West End theatre was less of a profound experience than I had hoped for. Often it felt like little more than a (admittedly impressive) circus act and the show seemed wholly detached from its spiritual roots. While I enjoyed the spectacle, I thought that ultimately the monks’ unique way of life had been somewhat devalued for entertainment’s sake.