Don’t be fooled into thinking U-Theatre’s multi-disciplinary production Beyond Time will be a typical high energy percussion spectacular. U-Theatre’s director and founder Liu Ruo-Yu demands much more from her audience, and also much less.

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Beyond Time photo by Toni Wilkinson

U-Theatre has been creating theatre productions on a mountain in Taiwan since the eighties, and Ruo-Yu’s theatre practice has evolved to include drumming, meditation and Chinese martial arts. Beyond Time is as much about stillness as it is about movement, as much about silence as it is about noise. Over seventy-five minutes the audience must adapt to the slow controlled intensity of another way of being. It was challenging to concentrate so intently on a single focus, not least because the stillness revealed how much noise is in my head.

The narrative loosely followed a central character or wayfarer and his relationship with the universe. Various scenes depicted a thunderstorm, a river and an eclipse. The dance movements incorporated Tai-chi , martial arts and the trance-like spinning of the whirling dervish. The moves were slow and controlled, integrated with percussion playing of fastidious precision. It became apparent that enlightenment or the method of controlling ones own body and working in harmony with others was through self control and supreme consciousness.

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The trance-like spinning of the whirling dervish

The opening scene Downpour started with the sound of dripping and built via a long slow drumming crescendo into a torrent of rain, depicted visually by video designer Hsu Yi-Chun’s streams of water projected on the back wall of the stage. The drummers played out the storm with an almost catatonic fixed stare.

A musical highlight from music director Huang Chih-Chun was the enormous gongs, lowered on wires from the rafters and played en masse to produce subsonic reverberations and then one by one to produce a melody of deep warmth. The solo on the enormous odaiko drum (large and round as a full moon) was also impressive for its intricate stick work and variety of sonorities.

There was no doubting the incredible skill and commitment of the artists. The ensemble drumming was breathtaking for its precision, particularly as the performers were continually moving in fluid patterns and controlled leaps as they played. The work ended with the entire ensemble spinning for several relentless minutes before walking slowly into the the rear projection screen and blending with its rippling shadows.

There were moments where the energy was high and pulsing followed a second later by complete stillness, waiting. Other times a crescendo built with incremental slowness. Heightened consciousness might have been the aim but sometimes it felt like an excruciatingly long slow burn. At the same time there was a magical sense sense of being immersed in another culture and ideology, of the tranquillity and freedom of going beyond time.

Beyond Time is at His Majesty’s Theatre until 11th February.