AO 22: spring 2008
Reviews from the London International
Mime Festival 2008
> Faulty Optic - Dead Wedding
> Sarah Wright w/ Bob Rutman, Bastiaan Maris,
Jeffrey Funt - Silent Tide
> Teatro Corsario - Aullidos
> Pep Bou - Clar de Llunes
> BlackSKYWhite - Astronomy for Insects
> Miquel Barceló and Josef Nadj- Paso Doble
Nola Rae - Mozart Preposteroso!
> Pickled Image - Houdini's Suitcase
> Punchdrunk - Masque of the Red Death
> Daniel Barker - The Little Theatre of Disease
Reviews from the London International Mime Festival 2008
22 January 2008
Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior
Dead Wedding is a collaboration between Faulty Optic and contemporary composer/DJ/Warp Records artist Mira Calix, with live music performed by Calix on computer and a chamber group on conventional instruments. It was a reminder of how powerful a combination live music and visual theatre can be. Calix’s soundscore, with its eerie Schoenberg-inspired dissonant vocals was the perfect foil for the nightmare scenarios onstage: a re-telling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth that sees ‘loser’ Orpheus stuck in a nightmarish limbo, reliving his doomed marriage to ‘lost’ Eurydice. Wife, life and limbs are all akimbo in this purgatory populated by dismembered cakes, crutches and eagleheaded puppets. Most striking is an image of eternal struggle to no avail as a legless Orpheus puppet stretches himself on a metal roller, only to be noisily sprung back with a sickening metallic crunch, crashing like a derailed rollercoaster carriage.
As always, Faulty use moving image to enhance the 3D puppet action; for once, making use of a full-size back-of-stage screen. Their characteristic play with scale takes a different form in this production, with no live-feed video, but pre-recorded film/video shown part-screen, full-screen or split-screen. We do also have some typical Faulty scale-play with a little model figure traversing the stage and big dismembered bodyparts being used as weapons (Orpheus beaten with his own bebodied head, for example, in a scene that like much of their work is simultaneously horrific and funny).
This production is also different to Faulty’s usual way of working with the far fuller visibility of the puppeteers, who are in head-to-toe blacks, but due to the onstage lighting needed by the musicians are always softly lit from behind. This gives them far more onstage presence than usual, which I rather enjoy, especially when it is played up in the relationship to the puppet, as in the scenes when crippled Orpheus is stilt-walked around by his helpers. In fact, if there is one criticism, it is that they could have taken this further, and used the opportunity of working in this different way to create more dynamic between performer-puppeteer and puppet. I felt that they were only tickling the surface of the possibilities that this could have provided.
Despite this one criticism, a great theatrical experience.
Sarah Wright w/ Bob Rutman, Bastiaan Maris, Jeffrey Funt
24 January 2008
Reviewed by Miriam King
Sarah Wright's concept, Silent Tide (subtitled ‘an industrial overture’) is inspired by the music and instruments of Berlin musician/composer Bob Rutman. This international collaboration – created by visual and sound artists from the UK, Holland, Germany and New Zealand – was a truly unique visual and sonic performance. Delicate and lovingly-crafted petite puppets played out their stories surrounded by huge, sturdy made-and-found instruments creating a live soundscape.
Curved metal sails, copper pipes and enormous raw steel pipes with propane gas blasting up them – somehow simultaneously classical and industrial, these musical instruments are the key visual motif of the stage design. The puppet action all takes place on a raised curved ‘table’ in the centre of the space. Incongruous and curious stage partners perhaps, yet this collaboration works, emphasising the parallel of the fragile human body (and the enormity of the soul and spirit to survive, adapt and discover) with the industrial world the delicate human finds herself occupying.
Silent Tide is an eternal modern fairy tale of the relentless human need to move and progress. I had concerns about a reworking of the common theme of the elemental being going urban, the
isolation and mechanisation of the city life, with skyscrapers infringing on the wild and nature, advancement and destruction – yet this telling felt poignant and mythical with an absorbing wonder.
This took concentrated viewing. I had opera glasses to pick out the detail of the little puppets, such as a multitude of shadowy figures increasing in size, in motion and journey progress ‘on the road’ into the vortex of the cityscape set. I would have liked to have been closer, in the midst of it.
I'd seen Bob Rutman doing a solo gallery concert in Berlin just over a year ago and it was fantastic to experience his sound put to theatrical purpose. Also wonderful was how Sarah Wright used this skill-based and recognisable form of ‘tabletop’ puppetry in such an exciting and fulfilling way.
The final image, in darkness: a flying being on fire, in green flame, a symbol for the continuous flow and change and adaptation of all things into eternal becoming.
17 January 2008
Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen
Aullidos (Howls) could have been a lot of fun. The pubescent daughter of a demon-besotted witch is killed by the Inquisition, cast adrift in the streets, befriended by a street boy, employed by the king’s mistress, sexually assaulted by the drunken king, dragged off into an aquatic underworld by her mother’s ghost for seven years, and reunited with and impregnated by the street boy transformed into a wolfman after his epic battle with a cannibalistic giant cum wolf child.
Fantasy, sex and puppets – what more could one ask for? A lot more in fact. Technical standards of Teatro Corsario were very high – with superbly crafted puppets, atmospheric sets and life-like animation and impressive special effects. But there was little humour, playfulness or nuanced character work, and the complete invisibility of the four hooded puppeteers combined with a clichéd, filmic soundtrack meant that the experience was more like watching an animated film than attending live theatre. There were mild thrills in the outré violence and sex, but because of the lack of engagement with the puppeteers and the audience’s unawareness of itself as a body, the production felt dream-like, rather than subversive.
I think I would have enjoyed watching a ‘making of’ DVD of Aullidos rather more than I did the full show.
Clar de Llunes
Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre
27 January 2008
Reviewed by Penny Francis
The show is described in the London International Mime Festival brochure as a series of ‘soap bubble creations’ – enough to put me off (were it not for the need to write this review), but not enough to stop hundreds of people attending the only performance of Pep Bou’s phenomenal show, Clar de Llunes (Moonlight).
A grand piano, a downstage shadow screen, an upstage projection screen for the intermediary film clips (very funny, some of them) comprised the basic stage setting, together with a number of strange props and table tops with and on which to form the Catalan’s many variations of – the bubble.
I have so far been unable to trace a name for the thin-as-air, diaphanous membrane of which a bubble consists. Pep Bou, smiling and endearing, manipulates and animates the dancing, wobbling things: it’s a puppetry of the most delicate shapes and lights. He has evidently mixed water, liquid detergent and glycerine to his own recipe, and the result is a parade of bubbles that are alive: alive with colours more vivid than any I have ever seen, alive with movement, alive with unlimited transformations in their shape and size. He built (yes, built) a number of them to form an archway; he placed one bubble at the centre of another, then inserted a third filled with smoke that circled the second bubble (how do you enter a bubble without popping it?).
Nor were the bubbles always round – not by a long chalk. A metal floor mat filled with liquid yielded up a flat, liquid curtain of the bubble membrane on which the slightest breath changed the entrancing shimmer of colours. In the end Pep Bou had gone beyond any reality we had ever known (though all was physics and chemistry, not magic) and was forming tunnels, like great flowing cloaks, of glorious bubble silk and placing himself within them. He even wrapped the pianist, Jordi Masó, in one, which involved trailing the pellucid cloak across the stage to the grand piano some metres away.
The spectators were of all ages. No-one minded when a bubble refused to behave, or simply burst, and the effect was repeated until it came right. The applause at the end for this charming performer was very loud. I was reluctant to go, but I’d go again.
Astronomy for Insects
18 January 2008
Reviewed by Beccy Smith
When you’re creating theatre that ‘tells no story [and] reveals no plot’ then other qualities of the performance carry a great weight of the audience’s experience. Rhythm, the staging dynamic, beauty, action (or task) all take centre-stage. This was the stated ambition of Russia’s BlackSKYWhite and there were moments when their hope to evoke a dreamlike world of fantastical figures and grotesques succeeded in transporting you outside of the logic of any familiar reality.
They created some exquisite images – the transmutation of figures was especially pleasing: arms to antennae, shoulders to thorax. The fabric of their theatre world felt fruitful and inventive – incredible costumes and masks which fundamentally altered your reading of bodies. And the sheer range of the assorted characters presented, from delicate bat-like anthromorphs to fat, rolling snowmen, via sinister Pierrots and bloated cuckoo-like tots in wheelchairs certainly emulated in veering tone and odd juxtaposition the logic of a dream.
Yet no amount of strangeness or even beauty are enough on their own to transport us in a sustained performance without a thoughtful imaginative framework to support its leaps and arabesques. I don’t necessarily mean narrative, but there were moments when this performance felt obtusely provocative, deliberately difficult, or simply ill thought through. It seemed a strange choice indeed to use a conservative staging – where the flashing and glowing of lava-lamp-like pillars did little to mask the fact that they were effectively wings, and where each new character was presented through a theme-park flavoured pair of faux iron gates. This made for a repetitive rhythm and neither this nor the aggressive industrial techno score best served the material’s wide shifts in tone and character. The talent and range of this extraordinary company felt undermined by a lapse of focus on their form.
Miquel Barceló and Josef Nadj
16 January 2008
Reviewed by John Ellingsworth
Ten tonnes of clay were brought into the Barbican main hall for Paso Doble, a public sculpture or painting in clay made afresh each night by performers Miquel Barceló (sculptor and artist) and Josef Nadj (dancer and choreographer). The clay starts in a smooth book-end shape, with a thick floor and a back wall, taller than either man, which by the end has been torn and impacted and (on the surface) completely altered. What happens in between is actually very simple: the two men work at the clay with their hands or their bodies or with basic tools, and there’s a scripted sequence where they bring out unfired pots and throw them over their heads to blindly sculpt masks.
It doesn’t make sense to talk about ‘scenes’, exactly, but there was an initial section where Barceló and Nadj started behind the wall then came out to mark fossil-like patterns and gouge and rip the clay — this ending with the two going back out of sight and the audience left to just look at the wall for one quiet minute. It seemed to be establishing a pattern – of activity then reflection – that was never carried on, and I think initially there was uncertainty on the audience’s part as to exactly how to watch the piece. For myself I found that the different movement styles and respective distinctive stage presences of Barceló and Nadj tended to tug my attention this way and that, as though it was a competition for my attention, and I always felt that by watching one or the other I was being complicit with them — at first it was Nadj, angular and dignified, slightly (in his make-up and bearing) suggesting a Hammer Horror actor, but gradually his grace became artificial, less interesting than Barceló’s inbent concentration and obvious pragmatic connection to the medium in which he worked.
I enjoyed seeing a sculptor at work; it’s not something I’d normally get to see. I think the audience enjoyed it too, but perhaps there wasn’t enough else to satisfy their expectations. There were beautiful images – my favourite was seeing a high-powered hose pointed up so that particles of wet clay churned overhead like an abstract, hovering intelligence – and broad mythopoetic resonances, but the piece was short and didn’t have much in the way of throughlines or conventional resolution.
I wonder in fact if it was weakened by the context in which it was situated — not the Barbican (although I expect for the people toward the rear of the upper circle the experience was considerably lessened), but the expectation and language that surrounded the performance in previews and copy which clearly placed it as the festival’s centrepiece, and a “major work”. Well it is and it isn’t. Perhaps it is major in respect of its performers (who each have illustrious creative histories) and its influence (which is to come), but as a live experience it is actually quite understated: where it is funny it is simple or sly, where it is visually impressive it is with brief or chaotic beauty. It is also impermanent: disposability is kind of the point. In the Barbican it felt too reverent and a little distant — or at least it did until the show ended, when a good part of the audience went to the edge of the stage to take a closer look, and both Barceló and Nadj stuck around and struck up a conversation.
Purcell Room, South Bank Centre
21 January 2008
Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen
Nola Rae’s solo pantomime interpretation of the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a crowd-pleaser, brimming with snippets of Mozart’s music married to wordless visual comedy. Rae’s mimetic actions are both elegant and grotesque, balletic and music hall.
Rae’s Mozart is the spirited jokester depicted in Schaffer’s Amadeus, an intuitive genius rather than intellectual craftsman. Baby Mozart, a rag doll puppet animated by Rae who simultaneously plays the role of Mozart’s father Leopold, improvises elegant variations on Leopold’s simple melodies and scribbles out complex compositions in his crib. The child also soils his trousers, chews on his father’s quill pens, and contorts himself to the rhythms of a metronome. Leopold exploits his son’s musical talents on tour. The infant progeny plays harpsichord blindfolded, wrapped in a cloth, inside the keyboard. Father is clearly envious of son, and also impatient with Mozart’s lack of discipline.
The son grows up and Rae trades in Leopold’s long nose and pince-nez glasses for the clown’s red nose. Leopold is now the puppet, woven into an old coat that Mozart haughtily discards. It is now Mozart’s moment to shine. He plays the dandy, decked out in a powdered wig and a fancy waistcoat, womanizing, drinking, playing party tricks on the piano, dancing to The Magic Flute. He composes half-a-dozen pieces simultaneously. Running his finger over the brim of a glass inspires him to compose for glass harmonica composition. Manuscripts rain from the sky, Mozart convulses and slumps over his desk as he composes his Requiem, his hand scribbling away to the last.
Mime is all about context. A charming show from the streets of Paris will flop in the circus, a screen gem makes for a stage dud. Nola Rae’s is the sort of show that would sparkle in Salzburg, Vienna or a Mozart festival. Yet in the context of LIMF, with the festival’s emphasis on cutting-edge visual theatre, all her ingenious tomfoolery feels curiously old-fashioned. The first-act conflict between Leopold and Wolfgang Amadeus, puppeteer and puppet, is the show’s high point; without a clear antagonist in the second act Mozart’s tricks entertain but do not engage us in his world. This does not diminish the joy of Mozart’s music and leaving the theatre I could not help but hum.
Bury Metro Arts
Reviewed by Edward Taylor
Pickled Image are a Bristol-based puppet company formed in 2000 by Dik Downey and Vicky Andrews. If you are an afficionado of UK outdoor theatre you'll recognise Dik from such companies as Desperate Men and Green Ginger. Pickled Image however are very much a company in their own right: they recently toured to Brazil and this show was produced during a residency in a theatre in the north of Norway.
To start off the stage is covered in suitcases and trunks of all sizes waiting for a train to arrive. Their owner, an aged Harry Houdini, bides his time waiting with them - a very effective full-faced latex mask is used to create the character. As he waits he opens up a suitcase which contains a few props from his past as a showman and the memories come flooding back. Another trunk opens revealing a very corpulent puppet ringmaster who announces the first act – a sword-swallower whose act may not be the best thing for him to be doing to himself. As he is a puppet, the puppeteers can be pretty physically cruel to him to emphasise this point.
The form of the show is thus established. You then start to look around the set, totting up the number of suitcases and wondering which one is going to open next. This could prove a problem but it's to the company's credit that they distract you from this sort of behaviour and involve you with the narrative.
The show goes to some very dark places: a wounded First World War soldier in a bed who temporarily escapes his physical injuries and flies round the room before returning to painful reality; a young boy creeping up the stairs in the darkness to peer into a room where a couple (possibly his parents ) can be heard having sex; and an extremely claustrophobic escapology scene where a puppet tries to escape from his chains whilst submerged in a glass tank of water. A scene with a large dancing bear was also extremely poignant.
The show filled the Bury Metro Arts main theatre with an audience of an extremely wide age-range who really appreciated the imagination and performance skills that the company brought to this tale.
Masque of the Red Death
28 January 2008
Reviewed by John Ellingsworth
I went looking for puppets, and was told there were puppets, but none were to be found. And of course that’s not the only thing I missed. Before I went I kept hearing about the amazing one-to-one experiences people had had, and it is with regret that I report that in the whole three hours I did not get licked or stroked, despite my best efforts in hanging around debauched-looking opium users and a muscular girl with a shaved head who I thought might be into that sort of thing. In fact there were only two moments when I found myself alone without other audience members, despite wanting to be alone, and I felt overall that Masque suffocated a little in the space: OK, at times there is meant to be a hothouse atmosphere, and it works well in those instances, but with the previous Punchdrunk production, Faust, it was the emptiness and vastness of the building that allowed the pieces of a discombobulated narrative to exist separate from each other — with an eerie sense of connection within a part-psychogeographical space.
There is a particular line of argument that says that Masque isn’t about narrative and therefore cannot be judged on those terms, but the company’s choice to represent events of the highest drama and narrativity (I saw a couple of murders, for example) to me makes those terms unavoidable. The scenes I saw were like items in a thematic apperception test – weird and dark and heaving with perverse and provocative undercurrents – but I never felt like I was given the space or encouragement to mentally extend a story in front or behind. My recourse probably would have been to spend time going through drawers and reading letters, but I found that because I apparently only ever fell upon high population audience thoroughfares if I wanted to examine anything in detail I would have to queue to do it — it was like being in a very unusual museum; I got tired.
There is a lot that is extraordinary about Masque. The attention to detail has been pretty well covered, but I think the choreography deserves every accolade as well. I didn’t see that much dance in Masque (which doesn’t mean it wasn’t there — I imagine everyone was dancing heartily until a fraction of a second before I entered the room); what I did see was great. I don’t know what the name for it is, but a lot of the time Punchdrunk choreography makes me think of contact where there is no contact, so you get a soloist who instead of moving around and over another dancer appears to be possessed or trance-like, facing inward, turning about and falling over whatever is inside of them to make them feel this way. The highlight for me, which I actually saw twice (everything is on a loop), was seeing a character dance and drop over the banisters and stairs of the BAC grand staircase. He was screaming in another language, about as loud as the (huge) music which emerged from the continuous background thrum as though it had been waiting there all along. It was just beautiful. Which is part of the problem: BAC is turned into one giant sensorium, and the audience are, primarily, titillated. I know there’s more to it than that; I know how committed the performers are, and have some sense of how endlessly new it all must be for them.
I’m vaguely familiar with the imbedded ARG (Editor’s note: alternate reality game). I’ve read, and love reading about, other people’s experiences of Masque; and I especially love reading about it from the point-of-view of the performers. I think what I just felt, overall, was that the production and the sets and the world they had created was incredibly rich, but that my experience of it was very thin. I’d rather be on the inside than the out.