Putting up notices on the doors to the Barbican performances of The Sound Of Ocean saying, "Warning: this performance contains loud drumming" is a bit like labelling a coffee cup "Warning: may contain hot liquid". It's true, obviously, but that's the very reason you're having anything to do with it in the first place. Of course it contains loud drumming: the show's being sold on the strength of fifteen Taiwanese drummers onstage for an hour and three-quarters!
Actually, not all fifteen, not all the time, not all drumming. At various stages, some of the U Theatre company engage in slow, T'ai Chi-style movement, or chant or sing variations on the classic Buddhist mantra Om mani padme hum; at one point one of them plays meditatively on a zheng, the Chinese cousin to the koto that sounds rather like an oriental pedal steel guitar.
U Theatre do most things meditatively. Their doctrine is to get their lives right through Buddhist disciplines in order to release the resources within themselves for more powerful acting. The major component of their acting is percussive – on drums, gongs, cymbals, tuned metal bowls – and this, too, they treat as a spiritual exercise.
The ritual element, as the performers subordinate themselves to the demands of the polyrhythms, is clear. The half-dozen or so men playing the biggest drums or the huge nipple gongs are tightly choreographed and precise in the movements of their various kinds of strokes. Even in the second of the piece's five sections, "Flowing Water", when players use smaller drums to evoke varying intensities of rainfall, there is no discernible pattern to the strokes, but they concentrate on the core process of playing, however slowly, and on the task of finding the perfect instant for each beat.
At times the transcendental nature of the experience for the performers communicates itself to the viewer, or rather listener. The repeated basic rhythms shift one's consciousness a little, so that the embellishments made against this sonic background seem to attain a greater significance. It begins to sound as if something specific is being expounded, just beyond the edge of decipherability.
Ultimately, though, whatever terms the company uses and however influenced they may have been by Grotowski's ideas about shamanism as a route to theatre, for a western audience this is predominantly a musical rather than a dramatic experience: a prolonged, percussive tone poem to water, taking in rain, streams, cataracts and climaxing with the mighty, complexly interlaced roar and crash of the ocean itself. After such impressively focused physical meditation, it seems a little tawdry when they come back for an encore.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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