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Theatre review: Wu Xi's Casting Sword uses basic materials to spin an epic story

Published on Jul 20, 2014 12:01 PM

Lu Xun's 1926 short story Forging The Swords (translated for this production as Casting Sword) is - to put it gently - a fantastical, morbid tale rich with beheadings and betrayal.

The iconoclast and crucial figure in modern Chinese literature seems to have taken great joy in subverting the legend of husband-wife swordsmiths Gan Jiang and Mo Ye, who forged a pair of magical swords for the King of Wu. Sensing that the King would kill him, Gan left one sword with his wife, so that his future son might avenge him. His weak-willed teenage son, Mei Jian Chi, is not quite up to the task, but a mysterious figure in the city deigns to help him assassinate the king. Lu's story climaxes with three heads (yes, just their heads) fighting it out in a golden cauldron full of boiling water.

To adapt the story realistically for the stage is something of an impossibility, and director Wu Xi cleverly goes for the opposite effect, aiming for the raw feel of street theatre or street opera, complete with live music from a guqin and percussion. His take is unabashedly comedic, with plenty of strong movement work from his ensemble of six (three actors and three dancers), who take on multiple roles throughout the piece.

The six switch characters seamlessly, from a naive country boy to a paranoid king, and they create their own environment along the way - the way a theatre troupe on a city street might use the most basic materials to craft the most epic of stories. There is plenty of delightful mime (including several scenes that hilariously re-enact entire bloody battles), they make their own sound effects, and use an arsenal of simple but effective devices to move things along, whether playing a scene in slow motion or on repeat.

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