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London International Mime Festival 2013

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Mime time: I’ve decided three shows is the limit but luckily they were better than last year.

Not Until We Are Lost by Ockham’s Razor – This was described as an immersive promenade piece but this was code for being bossed from one side of the theatre to the other at various points – pretty much the opposite of immersive. The reason for the movement was that Ockham’s Razor are an aerial theatre group and the show was split between two bits of apparatus: a movable scaffolding set and a shit perspex chimney. Let’s ignore the latter. The scaffolding, however, was a big improvement on the last time I saw them. There was a lovely playfulness, a childlike exploration, to their interaction with the bars and each other which compensated for a performance that was technically very tame. Still, there were many points where I wished they’d been a bit bolder and more fluid in their transitions. As is so often the case with performance art, the score (by Graham Fitkin) was the best thing about it.

The Cardinals by Stan’s Cafe – Three cardinals and a female muslim stage manager are putting on a mime adaptation of the Bible. Sort of like the Reduced Shakespeare Company for God but without words. Or 90% of the jokes. Or, indeed, much reduction: this had been trundling along for an hour with no progress when an intermission was called. A foolish move since we left to get something to eat. Presumably some use would have been made of the frame at the conclusion of the piece but we weren’t sitting through another hour of interminable flannel to get to it. (I’d clocked this was likely to be rotten from the programme but my wife insisted on seeing it because Stan’s Cafe once did something clever with rice. They should stick to rice.)

Plan B by Compagnie 111/Aurélien Bory – Their previous show, ‘Sans Object’, was the star of the 2011 festival so I had high hopes for this. I wasn’t disappointed. With a wit and a fluency absent in the other shows, Compagnie are able to mine a simple but inspired concept (here translating the plane of the stage from the vertical to the horizontal and points in-between) to stunning effect. The piece is ten years old but still completely fresh. The French basically put the British to shame when it comes to circus and physical theatre.

Written by Martin

20 January 2013 at 10:07

Girl Walk

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I’ve mentioned my love of Girl Talk before and it hasn’t gone away. ‘Feed The Animals’ and its follow up ‘All Day’ are never off my iPod and are invaluable in the gym. As I have been running along like a hamster in an underground bunker where I am forced to watch Loose Women with the subtitles on, I’ve often thought what a good soundtrack these music collages would make for a piece of contemporary dance. Turns out Wild Combination had the same idea and produced Girl Walk. Here is the first chapter:

So, if you ever see me on the streets of London, that’s what I’m doing on the inside.

Written by Martin

17 March 2012 at 16:02

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London International Mime Festival 2012

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It is January so, once again, it is the mime festival. I only saw three shows this year and I chose… poorly.

The Table by Blind Summit – And so, the table. Three men and a cardboard puppet. On a table. Part puppetry masterclass, part gentle stand up and (least successfully) part existential drama, The Table got rave reviews in Edinburgh and is really enjoyable. However, it is apparently too short to attract a paying audience so Blind Summit have tacked a load of old crap on the end. After an hour or so of the main show we have first a bizarrely shit homage to Eighties pop videos and then a tediously protracted silent film told through A4 paper. They managed to completely invert the concept of leaving the audience wanting more.

L’Immédiat by Compagnie L’Immédiat/Camille Boitel – I was really looking forward to this but it turned out to be piss poor. The missus tried to suggest that our restricted view meant that we couldn’t really appreciate it and, while this was true enough (there was one 15 minute segment where we couldn’t see anything), what I could see was deeply uninspiring slapstick. There was one good bit of mime where one of the actors started to levitated and had to be pulled down to work (but they rather cheapened this by repeating it). Of course, it didn’t help that since this was a piece of physical theatre at the Barbican it was soundtracked by constant braying and hooting from an audience singularly unable to distinguish between comedy, tragedy or even repose. If you find the concept of a man in a purple dress jumping out of a cupboard hilarious, this is the show for you.

Mundo Paralelo by No Fit State Circus/National Theatre Wales and Théâtre Tattoo – According to the programme notes, the thread that held this circus show together was something to do with angels and parallel worlds. This was not at all apparent from the stalls as the cast limped through a series of watery pieces of basic circus that hesitantly segued into each other with only dire French accordion music to link them. Half the cast wore Victorian get up, the other half didn’t appear to have got the memo. There was no wit, grace, drama or even spectacle (with the exception of the excellent juggler).

London International Mime Festival 2011

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To my surprise, I ended up going to four shows as part of this years mime festival. To my further surprise, it was my wife who ended up moaning about the fact some of these shows – well, the French ones – actually featured mime.

La Maldición de Poe by Teatro Corsario – As the title (The Curse Of Poe) suggests, this is heavily inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Teatro Corsario cut down the already relatively intimate stage of the Purcell Rooms into a moodily lit box for puppetry as they take us through a series of mashed up vignettes so that, for example, ‘The Black Cat’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ are superimposed on each other. Broodingly gothic in its tuberculour framing story, it also strongly tends to grand guignol and is shot through with scatological humour. A lot of fun and never out-stayed its welcome (although perhaps the performers didn’t need to take four bows).

Sans Objet by Compagnie 111/Aurelien Bory – If The Curse Of Poe was fun, Sans Objet was simply stunning. Something squats dragon-like beneath a vast tarpaulin which covers the whole stage. It starts to move; rearing up, turning its head, swooping down. Two men walk on stage and (with some choreographed difficulty) remove the sheet to reveal the creature. Incongruously, it is a robot. Not a humanoid or even animal-like robot but a huge articulated arm such as you would see on a factory assembly line. Now, I’ve seen a man dance with a JCB but I’ve never seen a man dance with a robot. And it was wonderful. It was also technically astounding on a number of levels; contemporary dance, classic mime and modern engineering combining with an uncanny grace.

Flesh and Blood, Fish and Fowl by Geoff Sobelle and Charlotte Forde – This is an exercise in exponentially increasing entropy. A man emerges from a bin and prepares himself for another day in an anonymous American office. He is a Brentish figure who Sobelle acts out in a series of fastidious and grotesque tics. It soon becomes clear he has nothing to do. Enter Forde, his secretary, in a deeply uncomfortable parody parade of lasciviousness. There is an exquisite, excruciating drawn out ‘courtship’ which is eventually consummated in the same bin Sobelle emerged from. Whilst this is happening we have the insistent, cumulative intrusion of nature (in the form of stuffed animals and plastic vines) which gradually usurp the humans. Apparently inspired by the abandoned city of Chernobyl, there are bursts of brilliant physical comedy here but I’m not so sure it makes a cohesive whole (although, of course, so much performance disdains this very concept).

Du Goudron et des Plumes by Compangie MPTA/ Maturin Bolze – This reminded me of The Mill (the only thing I saw at last year’s festival) in that having built their wonderful prop, the company didn’t seem to know what to do with it. A huge suspended platform sways in the middle of the stage, over the course of the performance it will move horizontally and vertically and the performers on it will come to resemble mariners on a great ship. But the great metaphorical potential of this transformation is wasted. The piece starts hypnotically and builds to a destructive crescendo but then, fatally, goes back in the opposite direction, becoming simply boring rather than quietly compelling. There are some nice bits of business, particularly an emotionally-charged imaginary dinner party, but to often it is repetitive and anti-climatic. They received a standing ovation; my wife turned to me with a sour look.

Sasha And Sasha

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Perhaps I should have mentioned it earlier but the 2010 LIFT festival started the other week (that is the 2010 London International Festival of Theatre festival, ATM machine fans). As usual, there was very little in the programme to interest me and, as usual, I still ended up going to a couple of shows.

The first of these – Best Before at the ICA – confirmed all my fears. My wife assured me that the company, Rimini Protokoll, were brilliant but what they served up was deeply half-arsed. Every audience member had a control that allowed them to move a little avatar on the screen above the stage and to make individual and collective decision about their development. You might think that these decisions would accumulate and have unexpected consequences and maybe highlight moral issues about the way we live our lives. Well, no. That might well have been the intent but the piece was so under-developed that this only occured at the most superficial level and was then immediately forgotten. This was all directed from the stage by “non-professional performers” who also interspersed their own reminiscences. There is another word for non-professional performers and that is amateurs and I am unsure why we were expected to pay to see this amatuerish rubbish.

Afterwards I was grilled by a nice young Canadian in short shorts doing market research. Once I had unloaded about the general shitness of the production, she asked what I would like to see from LIFT. The obvious answer was BITE but that would have been a bit churlish since a) it already exists and b) the Barbican nicked the idea from LIFT in the first place. Instead I garbled something about less gimmicks and a focus on actual writing. Last night I got my wish. Or half of it, at least.

Oxygen is exactly the sort of thing I want to see LIFT put on: new writing from an international playwright, in this instance Russia’s Ivan Vyrypaev. It is a two-hander, translated into English by Sasha Dugdale and performed by two actors from the RSC. Unfortunately the RSC doesn’t appear to teach microphone technique so Dharmesh Patel kept holding the mic much too close to his mouth. Otherwise I like both him and Sophie Russell. Everyone else I was with thought Russell was much too incongruously stagey but I think this is to ignore her changes in register and also the dynamic between two characters where she is the sophisticated Moscovite in contrast to Patel’s more overtly street small town boy.

The sense of the street – not to mention the sense of Russia – was provided by Top 9 and DJ Hobot sharing he stage with the two performers. So sort of a gimmick. However, director Deborah Shaw managed to integrate it a lot more successfully than in some productions I’ve seen. The play is structured as an album with ten individual so generally you get a bit of breaking and then the two actors and maybe a bit more breaking as punctuation, all conducted by Hobot at the back.

In contrast to Best Before, this was a cummulative experience; the structure could seem trite – and to begin with when it seemed it was going to ape the ten commandments I was really worried – but both the writing and the performance deepens as it goes. There was a problem though. Now, I know I’m becoming a stuck record on this but really, would it be so hard for the audience to just shut the fuck up? No one goes “yeah, man, wicked sollioquy” and bursts into applause in the middle of a play so why do it for physical rather than verbal expression? It reduces everything to the level of trick rather than an integrated part of a performance. Perhaps it is time to call a moritorium on breaking until audiences can grow up.

Written by Martin

16 July 2010 at 15:02

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Rock N Roll Circus

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The show I went to see last night was so massively undersold that my seats where upgraded. On the other hand, at the end of the night the performers received a standing ovation. As always the real story is somewhere between the two: Circa deserved a full house but the idiot enthusiasm of the audience only demeaned themselves and the performers. This show is apparently a bit of a greatest hits package so it was always going to be somewhat episodic. However, it was forced into becoming a series of set pieces by an audience baying for bread and circuses.

Circa are – as the name rather weakly puns – a contemporary circus company. Unfortunately the mindset of the audience is more Barnum & Bailey. This is a recurring problem in physical performance, exactly the same occured with ‘imreadywhenuare’; the audience is only able to treat the performance as a series of tricks. Tricks is really too cheap a word for the demanding acts of skills that the performers execute but that is what the audience reduce then to. And, in fact, the individual showcases that form the middle section of the show are the weakest part. Circa are at their best when deploying their considerable range and melding their individual skill with more considered choreography: one man mesmerising the entire audience with just his fingers, an S&M duet performed to Leonard Cohen or an unrestrained and comic dance featuring the whole company.

Written by Martin

10 March 2010 at 12:58

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Three Sisters

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Apparently it was Anton Chekhov’s 150th birthday last Friday. I didn’t notice but I did accidently go to see a production of Three Sisters at the Lyric. This is the only one of his four major plays I’d seen but all those had been fairly traditional productions. This production by Filter is not. As Paul Taylor puts it in the Indy:

Even the finest productions of Chekhov in this country can sometimes make you feel that the English are treating him as an honorary English gentleman and misrepresenting his world as a pre-revolutionary sepia-tinted Edwardian ideal, in that platonic summer-before-the-war that has everything to do with us and little to do with him. So it’s immensely refreshing that the excellent Filter collective have here collaborated with Sean Holmes, the new artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith, on a production of Three Sisters that scraps all the pseudo-refinement, the costume-drama safety net and the microclimate of understated realism. But don’t think that they have put on a manual on deconstruction where the mood-swinging bipolar spirit of the play should be or that they have replaced with a set of crude larks the enormous subtlety with which the play orchestrates its shifting conflicted atmospheres and its sense of conversation as the criss-crossing of competing monologues.

This matchs my impressions, the production is much more liberated than any other I’ve seen. It is tempting (but probably stereotyping) to think of it as madly Russian; not bipolar but manic-depressive, jagging between laughter and tears. If this leaves it slightly rough and ready that is part of its charm, althought he splinters so add up.

Guardian critic Michael Billington was perhaps thinking of Taylor’s introduction when he recently wrote:

Mention of The Seagull reminds me of yet another myth currently gaining credence: that English Chekhov productions are full of swooning nostalgia for our own lost rural past. This is rubbish

His own view of this production:

This is certainly not your standard Chekhov. Jointly directed by Sean Holmes and the experimental troupe Filter, it is stripped down, spartan and sonically strange. But while it skirts sentimental cliche and has moments of psychological sharpness, I missed the textured, symphonic realism and emotional fullness of vintage Chekhov productions.

There is something of the world weary critic who has seen it all in both his pieces but Billington actually has positive things to say about pretty much every aspect of the play. The comments are much less generous, including one that says: “Romola Garai was so appalling in Trevor Nunn’s The Seagull that I cannot believe anyone would want to see her as Masha.” I thought she was rather fine, her “sexily anguished Masha” – as Taylor puts it – well matched by “John Lightbody’s ecstatically frustrated Vershinin”. In fact, all the actors where impressive, with the notable exception of Poppy Miller as Olga who was hopelessly emphatic and actorly. It was one of those productions: good in most ways but flawed in all areas, the freshness of some touches tempered by moments of clumsiness which seemed amateurish or, as in the use of the stage technician to play the non-speaking roles, contrived. This was probably the inevitable price for the informality of the piece.

Billington mentions the sound design at length and it is true it was more miss than hit (by the time I saw it they seem to have jettisoned the motif of ‘There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly’ that several of the reviews mention). Otherwise the design was excellent. The third act in particular is staged very well, the set clumped into the middle of the otherwise bare stage, the actors occassionally having to break its claustrophobic confines. The customing is also very well-judged: the evolution of the members of the household matched by their clothes, the sharp divide between the soldiers and the ragged civilian men, even Farapont swaddled in his crash helmet (although why is the comic relief always Northern?).

Written by Martin

11 February 2010 at 23:48

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Herstory

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I went to the Battersea Arts Centre – or BAC, as they like to call it – last Saturday. It is on the opposite side of London to me and I’d never been before but, for some reason, I’d got it into my head that it would be a 1970s municipal box. In fact, although it is a municipal building, it is situated in the old town hall which was opened in 1893. It is an absolutely wonderful space and I’m sure I will be schlepping over there in future.

I was there to see Trilogy which, as the name suggests, is a performance in three parts. It was created by Nic Green (whose website is unfortunately bloody Flash) and she describes it as “a celebratory venture into modern-day feminism [which] examines and interrogates the joys and complexities of being a young woman today, whilst driving steadfast into the future with commitment and hope.” Right enough. The celebration centres around women’s bodies in their range and variety, independent of media images. The interrogation around what it means to be a young feminist in 2010 (the performers were all born in the early Eighties).

Part 1 is certainly celebratory. Green and the other lead performer (sorry, I’ve forgotten her name) come on, do an energetic and eclectic dance, before stripping off and continuing. They are then joined by fifty volunteers, similarly naked. There was a lot of joy in the room but, as a companion remarked, there was something of the Dove advert to it, and it is hardly revolutionary. In this context it was interesting to read Germaine Greer’s latest column for the Guardian on elles@centrepompidou earlier in the week:

Some of the younger women artists in the show may turn out to be ­discoveries, but too many of them are making the kinds of female body art that have been doing the rounds for years. Innocents may be excited by Sigalit Landau’s Barbed Hula of 2001, a video showing her full-frontal naked doing the hula with a hoop made of barbed wire, but only if they were too young to see Marina Abramowic´ slicing into her naked belly in the 1970s, or Orlan on the operating table in the 1990s.

More on Greer later. Part 3 moves the performance out to the audience. The show itself becomes interactive but more importantly it acts as a shop front for a collaborative website, Make Your Own Herstory (bloody Flash again). A key aspect of this is climbing up a hill, taking your clothes off and singing Jerusalem (an anthem for the suffragettes) then uploading the video to the website. This was recreated inside the BAC and again there was a great deal of enthusiasm from the participants, although again it is hard to be sceptical about how far this gets us.

And Part 2? This is the heart of the performance and makes extensive use of footage from Town Bloody Hall – I would have linked to the wikipedia entry but it doesn’t have one (a point raised in Part 3) – a panel discussion with Norman Mailer, Jacqueline Ceballos, Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston and Diana Trilling which took place in New York in 1971. Green and her fellow performers interact with footage from this event but really it is the film clips from the discussion itself which are the star. Trilogy transfered to the Barbican on Friday and to coincide with that they were also showing Town Bloody Hall so yesterday I went along to see the whole thing. It is bloody brilliant.

Calling it a panel discussion makes it seem rather more staid than it is. From the opening shot there is a palpable charge to the atmosphere, it is not so much that the event is history in the making but that the whole world is at a point of revolutionary change. The four panelists represent different parts of the women’s liberation movement (with Trilling the most removed). Mailer, on the other hand, had just published The Prisoner Of Sex along with an attendant (and controversial) article in Harper’s and, despite his protestations to the contrary, it is a bit like Mailer versus the feminists. He obviously revels in this and lives up to his reputation as a misogynist: throughout he is half prick, half pedant and although some of this is clearly deliberate, quite a lot of it obviously isn’t.

The four ten minute talks are all excellent from Ceballos (representing NOW) giving a straightforward presentation on the need for change to Trilling (literary critic for The Nation) questioning not only Mailer’s assumptions but those of the women’s movement with a wonderful digression on the female orgasm. It is Greer and Johnstone who are the real stars though. Greer, wearing a fur wrap and an expression of unrelenting disdain, mixes literary and social critique to confront the notion of the great male artist, as represented by Mailer. She is alternatively scathing and heartbroken and it is hard not to fall a bit in love with her. In the following discussion, despite being tetchy to the point of petulant, she gets all the best lines. Johnstone takes a different approach, launching into a structure free-association poem which starts hesitantly but builds into a torrent. She is cut short, mid-flow, by Mailer for having overrun (“slopped over” he later describes it). This marks the point where it becomes all about Norman and the evening gradually descends into a slanging match. A wonderful slanging match; they might make little progress on any of the big questions – although how could you expect them to? – but the mild anarchy and intellectual jousting is a joy to watch.

Written by Martin

24 January 2010 at 14:03

Workers Playtime

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Capitalism is wrong. This goes without saying yet people still feel the need to say it. This is fine if you are going to be sharp but if you are going to be blunt, why bother?

I’d heard good things about Ockham’s Razor but unfortunately The Mill was not very impressive. It is part of the 2010 London International Mime Festival but I prefer to think of it as physical theatre and the performers’ interaction with the set is the heart of the piece. Discussing this in an interview with the Guardian, one of them says that “we bashed around with various Heath Robinson-style systems, and they were all rubbish”. They have ended up with something quite simple but they fail to really exploit its full potential. The company works outward from their equipment and so here we move from the great millwheel at the centre of the stage to the concept of a mill itself to an examination of labour. They work, they change shift, they rest and enter a child-like state of grace, they return to the crushing conformity of work, they rebel, they stand around wanting to know what comes next. We slip out into the night, unmoved, to get a good night’s sleep before the wheel starts again.

I did like Derek Nisbet’s score though.

Written by Martin

20 January 2010 at 12:51

Firsts

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The last time I went to see Firsts it was because my wife was in one of the performances. This time my sole motivation was the fact it is a shockingly good deal: four pieces of contemporary performance for a fiver. Even a mixed bag is worth sampling at that price.

We were slightly spoilt to start with ‘A View From Down Here’ by Collectif And Then…, an aerial duet for double cloud. It was inspired by children’s letter and readings of these framed the piece on stage but really this was unnecessary because the brilliant child-like joy of the piece shone through from the very opening, before they’d even ascended the rope. I’m very tempted to see their next performance at Jackson’s Lane in the new year.

It was then a complete contrast to move back down to Earth for ‘imreadywhenuare’ by Simon Williams and Bad Taste Cru, a resolutely masculine and serious work. It comes with a lot of bumf about addressing peer pressure and urban conformity but it doesn’t really getting into this. There are a couple of things here. Firstly, I’ve looked up a snippet of the piece on YouTube which is very different and features four dancer. So it may well be that this version has been substantially buggered about with. It certainly looks pretty rough. Secondly, the audience must carry some of the blame. As soon as the dancers started breaking they started whooping – “Wow! Breaking! Amazing!” – and when (obviously) this turned out to only be part of the piece this left the dancers slightly stranded and the performance lopsided.

Also lopsided but much more successfully was ‘The Making Of Doubt’ by Stammer Productions. It opens with a long, slow waltz between two ripped open cardboard boxes which I thought was sweet but I could tell split the audience. The boxes then revealed four dancers, each with an additional prosthetic limb, struggling to control their new bodies as they emerged into the world. I thought this was amazing but I did hear a few grumbles in the interval.

There was pretty much nothing but grumbling for ‘The Second Death Of Caspar Helendale’, a collaboration between Jessica Curry and Dan Pinchbeck, which was just fucking shit. I will cut Curry some slack because at least she wrote the music but the concept of a requiem in and for Second Life is appalling. It was originally commissioned by 2ND LIVE: “exploring live performances in the Second Life (r) world.” Christ.

Written by Martin

28 November 2009 at 11:13

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