There are not many weeks of the year when kung fu would make it into a dance column. But with the Russian ballet stars' no-show at the South Bank, and the Indian dance week at Sadler's Wells snagged by airline problems, the monks of the Shaolin Temple in China have been nudged into first place. In any case, the put-upon critic reasons amiably, the martial arts are close cousins of dance. Think of their specialised demands on the body. Think of the long training and hard mental discipline, think, even, of the dance forms – Brazilian capoeira? – that derive directly from combat manoeuvres. Never mind that the primary purpose of kick-boxing is self defence. Once you put it on stage, it's dance.
I have no problem with that. What I find disconcerting is the idea of Zen Buddhist monks displaying their skills for our entertainment. Call me old-fashioned, but I thought the monastic calling rather ruled out year-long sabbaticals to Broadway and the West End. Thus the big question that dogs the full extraordinary 100 minutes of the Shaolin Monks' kung-fu extravaganza is not so much how do they do it, as why. Why would 20 men who have devoted their lives to meditation in one of China's most ancient holy temples want to hole up in an underground theatre to perform six nights a week plus matinee? No answers on a postcard, please. I think I can work it out for myself.
Yet it's hard to let go of the notion that these are people "not like us", that their minds hover on a higher plane, even in the face of their blatantly uncommitted opening chanting amid the big bronze buddha of Mark Fisher's set, a truckload of dry ice and 200 flickering candles. There follows a cheesy little scene in which a twinkly-eyed grand master gives coaching to a chubby seven-year-old novice, and an absurdly fruity voice-over which gives a brief resume of the Shaolin order's history. It then sternly reminds the audience (to rising titters) that none of what follows should be attempted at home "under any circumstances".
Try as we might, neither I nor my teenage companion could imagine circumstances in which we would want to try breaking steel bars over our own heads, or test our pain-thresholds by balancing horizontally on a sharp spike. But I can't speak for everyone. More up my street were the individual kick-fighting sequences, each designed to highlight a particular skill or quality: speed on the ground, aerial agility, or unlikely asymmetrical balances in which the exponent's entire body appeared to hover an inch above the floor.
Barrington Pheloung's pre-recorded score sticks mostly to Hollywood-style massed strings and climactic tribal drumming. More authentic flavouring comes from a trio of on-stage Chinese musicians playing an assortment of traditional instruments that look as fascinating as they sound. One, I noticed, resembled a banjo played like a cello, another a cello played as a drum. The bamboo flute is unearthly.
Beauty and subtlety does exist in this show, but it has to fight for its life within the conflicting formats of history-documentary, freak show and panto. As the monks' dealings with a treacherous Tang-dynasty emperor plays out in dumb show, you half expect someone to rub a lamp and summon a genie. However, the short dose of history gives scope for one humdinger of a kung fu battle, during which the monks' grunts and shouts combine with the clatter of weaponry and Pheloung's best efforts to create moments of seat-gripping excitement.
As "dance", there is much to admire in the kung fu poses, inspired as they are by animal movements, and you don't need a black belt in martial arts to spot "grasshopper", "eagle" and "tiger". The mind-over-pain element is rather less suited to theatre-viewing. And towards the end of the evening I began to feel, queasily, as if I had entered an S&M club. Ever heard of a monk sandwich? Take one bed of knives, add one monk and a bed of nails. Top with a second monk and a stone slab. Then bring a sledgehammer down on the lot.
'Shaolin Monks': Peacock Theatre, London WC2 (020 7863 8222), to 5 October
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