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REVIEWS: Spring 2011...

/ Faulty Optic, Flogging a Dead Horse
/ Les Antliaclastes, Hilum
Compagnie 111 – Aurélien Bory, Sans Objet
Akhe Engineering Theatre, Gobo. Digital Glossary
Teatro Corsario, La Maldición de Poe


Faulty Optic
Flogging a Dead Horse
Roundhouse | London International Mime Festival
29 January 2011

Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

Flogging a Dead Horse is announced as Gavin Glover’s last venture under the banner of Faulty Optic, the company he co-founded in 1987 with Liz Walker. The company is famous for its surreal micro-universes populated by eccentric and often obsessive creatures and the cast-offs of everyday life. Few would contest its claim to being the UK’s flagship adult puppet theatre company. This piece, created without Walker, might be read as Glover’s look back upon Faulty Optic’s working methods and themes. But it is more than a retrospective, and there is much more creative generativity than the ironic title would suggest.

This is a very dark show, post-apocalyptic and post-dramatic, depicting two men in a military hospital/base of operations/secret laboratory under the sea or on the moon who fashion puppets and bring life to objects, exchange sound samples and Rorschach images, casually engage in torture and indulge in Orientalist fantasies based on Salome. We are offered no sense of the two men's inner lives, no hint of their past histories. Steamship punk communication technologies are in evidence but there are no bridges to the outside world, only glimpses of dated media products, parodies of science films, and endless games to pass the time as in Samuel Beckett’s plays. Tensions mount but are disrupted by the stereotypical call: 'let's have a cup of tea'. The show is about nobody (who worries about the sell-by date of a brain?), or maybe about all of us. Very tedious and absolutely gripping at the same time, profoundly baffling and simultaneously deeply illuminating. This is an important work of art, not a requiem to Faulty Optic but a glimpse of adult puppetry’s future.


Les Antliaclastes
ICA | London International Mime Festival
22 January 2011

Reviewed by Penny Francis

An element of perversity was manifested even in the difficult name of the company, taken from a verse play by Alfred Jarry and recalling his surreal school of Pataphysics. Then there is the name of the show, ‘Hilum’, not a word in everyday use, but a part of the liver, with which the production seemed to me to have little to do. An equally important element was its extraordinary aesthetic, which I can only describe as exquisite and richly detailed, delicate to the point of fragility, monochrome (generally sepia) with a cast of death over the whole: each puppet, whether animal or human, had a skull for a head; and each operator wore an unexpectedly sinister mask of old lace, their body swathed in ghostly drapes. Almost all of the visuals I found excitingly original, and some of the puppets – they were marionettes – were excellently manipulated.

Four puppeteers had their work cut out to manipulate the figures through and among the stage props and furniture of the set, which represented a living room in which they, the puppeteers, loomed like giant gods controlling their puny subjects. The opening sequence in which a boy puppet woke, climbed out of bed and then pushed the bed up and into the wall was one I won’t forget in a hurry: for a second or two I thought it a real child. Then the operator appeared and the illusion crashed as the scale of the room shrank in proportion to the scale of the humans, and the artificial figures became miniatures. This was true puppetry.

As usual the brilliance of the visuals was not matched by the content. There was a series of scenes with only the most tenuous of connections. Most recalled the dreams and nightmares of an imaginative child, strongly influenced by old films, whose recorded  background music grew ever louder and more intrusive. Storybook characters appeared and disappeared: weird half-creatures, an underwater sequence featuring the voice of Elvis and a large American car, even for a few seconds a ‘coal black mammy’ in a turban and big earrings (I fancied the audience held its collective breath at this point).

Central to the set was a washing machine with a huge window suggesting a domestic context used, rather clumsily, to project images and to produce one of the performers masked with a death’s head framed by daisy petals. At one point the washing machine was turned on its back and a trapdoor in the base opened to reveal the birth of a baby washing machine, complete with bloody caul. It seemed an unlikely scenario for a dreaming child.

It was an ambitious, intricate show, with a cluttered set awkward for the performers to navigate gracefully. The second half will, with more time and perhaps less complication, match the first in achieving the artistry that conceals art. I longed for the little boy to return at some point, as his imagination seemed to be the subject of the piece, but he didn’t.

The show has the makings of an international winner (there are very few words). It was conceived, designed and made by Patrick Sims and Josephine Biereye. Celine Chevy and Rosanna Goodall were the other two puppeteers. David Hayter was responsible for building the set and the lighting, and Sophie Barraud for the sound.

If you are intrigued, you can see Hilum at this autumn’s Charleville festival.


Compagnie 111 – Aurélien Bory
Sans Objet
Queen Elizabeth Hall | London International Mime Festival
21 January 2011

Reviewed by Emma Leishman

Sans Objet started simply, tantalising and mysterious – black plastic coated the stage with something hiding underneath, a something that moved and had realism about it and then human tendencies, a tilting of the head, as though thinking, much like a child does in mid-play.

With a mixture of manipulation and animation of machine and human this was the fifth production of Aurélien Bory presented by the London International Mime Festival. There were brilliant moments in this piece, beautiful images created by disciplined and physical performers interacting with machine, but who were these men and what was their relationship to the 'object'?

Bory states that he in fact asks himself at the start of each show: 'What is it about? And what is it for?' While I was able to answer the first of these two questions with a series of ideas, the second was less defined and for me the production got lost with too many ideas compacted into one piece. What started as a brilliant improvisational idea was muddied with interjections of filmic Kubrick and Spielberg nostalgia that did not need to be there.

There were superb moments when human physical dexterity was tested, when man and machine became one, one of the performers putting his head inside part of the machine as though connecting to it, allowing himself to be completely manipulated, marionette-like, by the robotic movement.

The highlight for me was when at one point the two performers (with it still unknown who they were or why they were there) and the robot (a 1970s robot from the automotive industry) seemed to dance together in a flow of movements and aerial sequences, almost like an innocent love scene. They caressed each other, holding moments in time, moving in perfect opposition to counterbalance weight and bodies – it was beautiful to watch and mesmerising, but abruptly broken by odd instants that reminded the audience that this was a robot, and by the constant questioning of its soul's existence.

There were some stunning images created with body and machine and equally complimented by Chaplin-esque comic touches from both performers. There is strong potential for this production to be amazing, but I felt ultimately it was a little over-processed.


Akhe Engineering Theatre
Gobo. Digital Glossary
ICA | London International Mime Festival
19 January 2011

Reviewed by Penny Francis

Geometric lines, vertical and horizontal, traced by laser and wire, a scattering of objects and unlikely furniture, none with any connection to a storyline, but with a certain plastic beauty and balance of form, somehow recalling a laboratory. These decorated a show that was truly avant garde in that it was for me impenetrable. Akhe Engineering Theatre comes from St Petersburg and is held in high esteem in many festivals of many countries.

This production, called Gobo. Digital Glossary, added to the generally profound puzzlement, the brain working overtime to grasp the significance of the signifiers which included two burly men (almost twins), a number of objects, an interesting sound design, and projections hinting at a search for a Hero and the various attributes of the heroic character. The programme notes did little to help, except to tell that Akhe ‘pushes theatre to its limits’. It confirmed my belief that the basis of the work is a highly controlled anarchy from a creative force (the company) trained in the visual arts.

After enthusiastic applause the two men came to a discussion with the audience, moderated by the ubiquitous Dick McCaw, who handled the session with good humour and patience. Maksim Isaev and Pavel Semchenko, the two players, were also joined by the director and sound designer. They all acknowledged (in Russian) that this was an absurd, surreal theatre, ‘an assault on the ears and eyes’. Maksim insisted that the show had ‘well-defined structures’ and a ‘logical conclusion’ (I was surprised), although their work had no ‘clear-cut formulas’ and proposed a ‘different language’ (I agreed).

I was struck by his parting shot, ‘Technology is using us [humans] and we have to dominate it. We will overcome.’ I can’t help wondering how. Akhe’s method is to seduce it, subvert it and add a large measure of humour to it, often a most effective deterrent to domination.


Teatro Corsario
La Maldición de Poe
Purcell Room | London International Mime Festival
15 January 2011

Reviewed by Penny Francis

This was the opening show of the London International Mime Festival, and the third time Corsario from Spain had been chosen for LIMF. The three shows have in common the technique of Black Theatre, meaning the playing area is within a corridor of white light thrown from either side of the stage, with the puppeteers in black and pretty well invisible. They also have in common themes of sex and violence performed by large figures operated from the rear (which may be termed rear-rod puppets). This year the show was La Maldición de Poe (The Curse of Poe) and was a compilation of scenes from the writings of Edgar Allen. The narrative was a slender one, but featured notably a large, violent and very unkempt gorilla with murderous tendencies. Many puppets died.

The action was quite fast and furious, enough to keep the spectators engrossed, and the performers were very well hidden: but, that said, I found the show far more crude in design, dramaturgy and execution than either of the previous two. The company’s aesthetic is deliberately coarse, and has become coarser (I have stumbled on an unintended pun). In their first LIMF appearance with Vampyria in 2009 I still remember with great pleasure aspects of the show which had some refinement and beauty, such as the opening sequence with an impeccably operated galloping white horse, even if the story of the vampire was full of violence and explicitly sexual. For La Maldición de Poe refinement and beauty had more or less been abandoned in all departments.

I hope for their next piece Corsario will recapture the original spirit of their work, and play less eagerly to the gallery. 



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