Running The Silk Road @ Barbican Pit, London

cast list
Nick Chee Ping Kellington
Saraj Chaudhry
Betsabeh Emran
Chia Kuei Chen
Gongxin Lan
Shen Fung
Yanzhong Huang

directed by
David Tse Ka-shing
In an early evening address, the Barbicans Managing Director, Sir Nicholas Kenyon, declared that 25 June 2008 was one of those rare nights where everything came together.

Here, all under one roof, we had an exhibition on the work of Dutch designers, Viktor and Rolf; the multiple award winning Black Watch; the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, and Huang Yong Pings new installation on the opium wars. But amidst all the excitement, he failed to mention by name the Pit show for that evening. I suppose that should have been enough to set my alarm bells ringing.

I didnt exactly feel short changed by Paul Sirrets Running the Silk Road, but, as I watched, I couldnt help feeling that there were more interesting things going on upstairs. The play tells the story of Ken (Nick Pee Ching Kellington) who decides to run the 5,000 miles from West to East, arriving at the Beijing Olympics at the same time as the official torch, to prove his devotion to his fiance who has just dumped him.

The trouble is that you know exactly what is going to happen from the outset. Indeed, I am giving nothing away that you wont soon work out for yourselves when I say that he eventually succeeds. Of course, you can say that about many pieces everything from Richard II (he gets killed) to Titanic (the boat sinks) but, where this is so, the appeal must surely lie in the way that the story is told. Indeed, with a play such as Running The Silk Road, even if we can anticipate the ending, the story should be so powerfully told that we are, at least on occasions, convinced that the protagonist could genuinely fail.

Unfortunately, Silk Road is so clichd that we fail to believe this for a second. Starting with Ken announcing his plan, and his friends dismissing it as hair-brained, he persuades them to come along one by one when they start seeing the pluses. Then along the way he faces his quota of trials and tribulations, that include suffering an injury; the clapped out support car breaking down; the money running out; support derived from his website waning; the news that his girl is no longer in Beijing, and a falling out with his friends that sees him completing the journey alone before the inevitable reconciliation. It is all so stylised that, despite the frequency of the problems, we are never taken away from seeing a man on a stage running towards an inevitable conclusion to the drama.

In fairness, there is a further, and more successful, dimension to the play. Ken is also running to raise money to tackle global warning, and all along the way Xi (his girl) haunts his dreams citing natural disasters, caused by climate change, that desperately need the worlds attention. Mans relationship with the environment is also personified though the ancient Chinese Gods, with Lei Shen, the Thunder God, bringing violence and storms, and, in contrast, Yu, Queller of the world flood, restoring harmony. The dances and acrobatics performed by Shen Feng, Yanzhong Huang and Gongxin Lan are most impressive, and reach their zenith when Yi, the Archer, destroys beasts portrayed by several ensemble members moving in harmony whilst carrying fans.

Nevertheless, though visually stunning, these dances fail to connect sufficiently with the play to establish any conclusions as to what Kens journey has really done for the world or the environment (other than raise a little awareness and money). The main area of achievement therefore lies in Ken learning to do what had always seemed impossible for such a methodical and risk averse person. But even here, since we see so little of his life before the journey, we only grasp this point through having it explained to us. Indeed, though the plays ending is supposedly open ended, with Ken simply facing Xi for the first time in ages, given that nothing else had surprised me the entire evening, I was left in no doubt as to which way this particular encounter would go.

I have no doubt that Sir Nicholas was correct when he declared that the Barbican was currently the place to be, but, to my mind at least, given the wealth of choice on offer upstairs, you may want to think twice before descending into the Pit.

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