London International Mime Festival 2019

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Leo De Beul in Peeping Tom’s Father (Vader). Photo © Oleg Degtiarov
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Using language and losing language: Theatre Re, Gecko and Peeping Tom at the 2019 London International Mime Festival

The London International Mime Festival, revitalising the city’s stages every January after a stodgy season of panto and Nutcrackers, provides such a capacious and innovative interpretation of mime that first-time audience members are often baffled by what the word might mean. Expressions of astonishment – ‘But they were speaking!’, ‘Why weren’t they wearing Pierrot face paint?’, ‘Why did no one get behind a desk and pretend to walk down the stairs?’ – are fertile grounds for discussion, even for seasoned festival goers.

Among the companies featured in a month-long programme were three returners – UK-based Gecko and Theatre Re, and Belgian company Peeping Tom. All three companies use language as well as physical theatre in their pieces, though in the case of Theatre Re’s Birth, the dialogue is performed almost inaudibly below a joyous music box soundtrack that, in the climactic tragic birthing scene, turns atonal and frightening.

Following three generations of women grappling with motherhood, daughtership, raising children and losing pregnancies, Birth’s sharp-eyed observations and interpretations of ordinary rituals – setting tables, brushing hair, arguing – make compelling watching, and director Guillaume Pigé blends his montage of scenes seamlessly. Sadly, the overall narrative arc suffers from the very ordinariness it strives hard to represent, and ultimately gives in to sentimentality, at its worst during the most purely ‘mime’ sections – a baby, for example, inching towards life before dying at birth, represented by an actor in a Pierrot suit crawling along a line of light.

Theatre Re: Birth.

By contrast, Gecko’s The Wedding takes symbols from ordinary life and staples them to storyboards that echo and mimic without entirely reflecting reality. The Wedding, performed at the Barbican, comes a few months after Gecko’s triumphant return to Battersea Arts Centre with Missing (the show that burned down in the BAC’s 2015 fire), and it sparks with a surprisingly revolutionary flame. Performers are birthed from a chute into a pile of teddy bears and ceremonially wed to their new jobs, starting in creamy satin wedding dresses but eventually graduating to grey and white office wear.

Working at wheeled cubicles, they move with a rapid, unbending uniformity, but individual stories break the rhythm. A man, miserable in his role, turns to alcohol and floats across the stage in a fuggy, loose-limbed fugue, his tie, coffee cup and telephone suspended around him like tiny ghosts. Two women, frantic for some other dimension to their life, crawl out of the office and lose themselves in a chest-pounding, stamping, spinning ritual of private rebellion. The energy of this rebellion carries over to the effervescent finale, which sees the workers destroying their office – and presumably seizing the means of production.

The symbol of the wedding – and so of duty, unconditional loyalty and binding contracts – is potent, and while Gecko’s interpretation is elastic enough to resist narrative exactitude it can also be frustrating. Nevertheless, the individual characters that rise out of the densely emblematic imagery have clarity and charisma. Most striking are the family of buskers who live literally out of suitcase – poking their heads out of its zips and flaps to engage with the audience and one another. Though the international performers use their native languages when required to speak, the energy of conversation, of wheedling, of flirting, of pleading, of joking, of arguing, is unmistakeable, and exact translation is unnecessary.

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Gecko theatre company in The Wedding.
Gecko in The Wedding. Photo © Richard Haughton

Peeping Tom utilise the same technique in Father (Vader), set in a retirement home where nurses, inhabitants and visitors melt in and out of one another’s roles, energetic compères banter in Chinese and Japanese, outraged sons reprimand Flemish fathers, and groups of pearl-clutching retirees scream in the universal language of terror. A multilingual audience might feel themselves tuning in and out of perfect linguistic comprehension, as if twiddling the knob on a radio and hearing bands of clarity over the static. In fact, when director Franck Chartier wants his London audience to understand exactly what’s going on, he errs on the side of rhetorical caution and has his performers use English. So why not pick one lingua franca and stick with it throughout? Because prioritising language over movement goes against the point of mime; Chartier (and Gecko’s director Amit Lahav) use of multiple languages actually upends the narrative authority of words. Father is a deeply surreal masterwork that explores father figures – despotic, pathetic, overbearing, dying, mysterious, ridiculous – and the quiet terror of ageing, of losing influence over one’s own narrative, even one’s own perceptions, and one’s own body. Language locks in meaning, but the body echoes it and is bent by it: to a confused old man, a shouting face that freezes into rictus can carry more weight that the words themselves; summoning memories and sensations as tableaux is infinitely more expressive when language begins to lag.

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Language locks in meaning, but the body echoes it and is bent by it

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Losing language also has its own surreality. Yi-Chun Li’s extraordinary backbends, and Maria Carolina Vieira’s gymnastic floor routine, which sees her tying herself into knots attempting to put a shoe on, turn the body uncanny. The dramatic extremes their bodies describe are pitched perfectly for the atmosphere, and their bodies become a part of the weird world of the retirement home, with no separation between the strangeness of the self and the strangeness of the place it has arrived in.

Father is both funny and deeply upsetting, and the contrast between the bravura calisthenics and, for example, performer Simon Versnel scared and naked on a hospital bed while a nurse sponge-washes him, does so much more than mere dialogue. Peeping Tom’s use of the bizarre, of acrobatics, and of black humour and the hyperrealistic is at the furthest end of a scale occupied at the other end by Theatre Re’s Birth. It presents the extraordinary with such conviction and persistence that it persuades its audience, for an hour and a half, that this is what reality looks like. 

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London, UK, January 2019
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