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.