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

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.

Wu is confident enough in the audience to allow us to rely on our imagination, but enhances our view of this created universe with clever low-tech "special effects": black ink unfurls on four vertical canvases to create shifting landscapes; an actual, visible wooden sword is ostensibly cut in two by an invisible one; and deliberately exposing the mechanics behind several "beheadings".

Some scenes dally a little too long, but the play's gentle humour, coupled with an energetic cast, keep the show tight. It almost feels strange to have these acrobatic performers cooped indoors, in the formality of a black box theatre space.

Wu, a long-time collaborator with The Theatre Practice, chooses to sharpen the play's focus on the endless cycle of revenge, the futility of making one pay for another's death - how it might spark a chain reaction that will continue until everyone is mutilated or dead. He has a clear moral in mind, and Casting Sword can feel a little like a morality play at times, but thankfully does not take itself too seriously.

The M1 Chinese Theatre Festival has proved to be a space where small productions can take big leaps; last week, Liu Xiaoyi's Fluid transcended tired theatre conventions in the same way that Casting Sword both defies and embraces its origins. Next door at Lasalle's Creative Cube, organiser The Theatre Practice stayed true to its experimental roots with its stripped-down 1 Table, 2 Chairs series, creating theatre out of the bare minimum.

The festival has been an invigorating look at the heights of imagination that can be scaled in intimate spaces, and I hope that trend continues.

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