Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Apocrifu is probably not a great choice for date night, unless your date is a cleric. Although it’s not long, it’s ponderous, dense, and even oppressive; my neighbor next to me fell right asleep within 15 minutes of the piece, and began to snore rather loudly in the acoustically sensitive Heath Ledger Theatre. There were other patrons checking in with each other for attentiveness around me, and yet, others rose to their feet and cheered loudly at the curtain call. This reviewer is having trouble reconciling these two camps of reaction.
This is Cherkaoui’s meditation on the divisiveness and truth of religious texts, and though he does indeed present a thesis, much of his elaboration floated in a murky liturgical space resembling a day in the life of a medieval monk. While there are moments of clarity in the piece, there are long stretches that ambulate aimlessly in philosophical obscurity, offering little in the way of an argument or proof of his proposal.
There are books everywhere in this big wooden set, with a rather obvious ‘stairway to heaven’ and a choir loft that gets used less than half of the time; Cherkaoui keeps periodically uprooting Corsican vocal group A Filetta and relocating it to different spots on stage. They sing in traditional Corsican, though what about, we’ll never know. There is no indication of the songs’ titles or content in the program, nor are there any surtitles, though the creators have been kind enough to provide surtitles for the Japanese spoken on stage by performer Yasuyuki Shuto.
The three dancers are vastly different performers. Shuto is a classical dancer, moving with graceful vertical alignment, as opposed to the contorted floor work by contemporary dancer Dimitri Jourde. Cherkaoui himself falls somewhere alongside the two, though he never achieves the gracefulness of Shuto nor the emphatic power of Jourde. He looks like more of a physical theatre performer with extra dance training rather than the other way around; but never mind, he created the work.
For some reason, there is a bunraku-style puppet that comes to life midway through the piece, dressed in the same drab, gray clothing the three performers are wearing. Whether this puppet signifies an elder religious scholar or is a reluctant peer of the other three, I can’t be certain. It’s used as mostly comic relief, and ostensibly a symbol of man’s tendency to become puppets of religious doctrine, as would be indicated by other mimed ‘I’ve got strings attached to me’ sequences later in the work.
There doesn’t seem to be a natural rising and falling action in Apocrifu, and although we as an audience can do fine without an obvious narrative, it’s always good to have some kind of momentum, forward motion, change of pace, or change of tack. But here we find ourselves stuck on an interminable plateau of religious drudgery, ill-fitting suits, hodge-podge symbolism, grime and sweat. The Tosca-inspired ending couldn’t have come soon enough.
2016 Perth International Arts Festival
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Venue: Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA
Dates: 25 – 27 Feb 2016
Tickets: $25 – $75