A magical merging of choreography and film-making, puppetry of every persuasion, Beckettian clowns, the body as manipulated object, and circus shows that deconstruct and re-asssemble the traditional skills into new forms: this and more was seen at the London International Mime Festival by Total Theatre’s team of writers. Dorothy Max Prior reports on shows seen and post-show talks facilitated…
The 40th anniversary edition of the London International Mime Festival saw a whole raft of world and UK premieres, but also a number of returning shows. There was a special edition of Gandini Juggling’s worldwide hit Smashed; Familie Floz with what is perhaps their best show (although all are great), Teatro Delusio; and Charleroi Danses from Belgium with Kiss & Tell (read Donald Hutera’s interview here).
Kiss & Tell was (unusually) first presented out-of-season by LIMF, who brought it over to the Barbican in June 2014 (reflected on by Beccy Smith, in the feature I Am a Camera). This collaboration between renowned filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael and choreographer Michele Ann de May is an extraordinary piece of work, blending object animation, live action and film – the onstage cast and crew creating a film live onstage,the audience seeing both the creation of the scene and the film simultaneously. Scenes are enacted using ‘puppeteered’ hands, tiny model figures, dolls houses, tanks of water, clouds of coloured smoke – and an entrancing miniature train that whizzes round and round throughout the show. Performers, cameramen, lighting technicians and object manipulators scurry around in the semi-darkness, between half-a-dozen or so on-stage sets, the filmed action appearing on an enormous screen on the back wall. It is a technically stunning show – but it is far more than a show of techniques, as the story is a tender and moving one about memory and what one values most in life, focusing on a woman nearing the end of her life who remembers her five truest loves – she can count them on the fingers of one hand – starting with the boy whose hand she touched on a train when she was just 12 years old. It is exactly the sort of show that has made the reputation of LIMF: a merge of awe-inspiring form and soul-nurturing content to create a magnificent example of visual theatre.
Festival firm favourites who were back in 2017 also included the terrifically talented Moussoux Bonte with Whispers, reviewed by Thomas Wilson; perennial favourite Mathurin Bolze/ Compagnie MPTA with Barons Perches (which I’ve reviewed, on its opening night at LIMF 2017) and marionettist Stephen Mottram with a double bill, The Parachute / Watch the Ball (reviewed by Darren East). I say marionettist, but there was hardly a string in sight…
Stephen Mottram’s was one of five LIMF 2017 shows that I attended as facilitator of the post-show discussion. In this case, almost all the sold-out audience at Jacksons Lane stayed on for the talk – and (in puppetry terms) it was a pretty heavyweight audience, with such luminaries as Lyndie and Sarah Wright of Little Angel Theatre, Ronnie LeDrew (manipulator of Muffin the Mule, Sooty and Sweep, Zippy and so much more), and Indonesian Wayang Kulit shadow puppetry expert Matthew Cohen of Royal Holloway – all facing front expectantly. And I’m pretty sure they weren’t disappointed! Stephen talked eloquently about the interchange between science and art in general (I once took part in one of his workshops and learnt a lot about physics from his explorations of pendulum swings!), and the work of Swedish Psychologist Gunnar Johansson in particular. Johansson’s research was the catalyst for the creation of The Parachute, as well as leading the film industry to the techniques of motion capture. Stephen explained how, in the 1970s, Johansson had attached white markers to a few key points on a black-costumed actor’s body and then filmed the actor walking against a black background. When the film was played back, he was surprised to find that the white spots seen moving relative to each other on the screen contained so much information that not only could the viewer immediately identify a human walking, but also the gender, age and mood of the person. In The Parachute, Stephen Mottram uses the idea in reverse. The white tips of his multiple magic wands (ten at a time, imagine!) reveal ephemeral characters – characters that within a minute of the piece starting we completely believe in. The second of the two pieces, Watch the Ball, cleverly plays with the nature of puppetry. A puppet assembles itself from a piece of cloth and a pair of human hands, chooses itself a head, and then the puppet goes on to make itself another puppet. Meanwhile, the puppet master, wearing dark glasses, looking away, appears to have nothing at all to do with all this. Discussing it afterwards, Stephen talked of the puppeteer’s task being to manipulate the audience rather than the objects – it’s all an illusion, that’s the magic of puppetry.
Also a puppeteer (although of a very different ilk); also at Jacksons Lane: Patrick Sims, formerly creative director of Buchinger’s Boot Marionettes, who in recent years has been working under the name Les Antliaclastes. He was last seen at LIMF in 2011 with Hilum, a micro comic-tragedy, based on the cycles of a washing machine and set in the basement of a rundown museum of natural history. Previous shows for Buckinger’s (Vestibular Folds, and Armature of the Absolute) have been a similarly mind-blowing blend of surreal dreamscapes – with influences ranging far and wide, but usually with some traceable lineage to Alfred Jarry. His new show is called Here Lies Shakespeare, and it lives up to expectations – a cornucopia of extraordinary ideas and images enacted by grotesquely masked humans and taxidermied puppets. Some of the images are still haunting me weeks later, not least the terrifying larger-than-life Potato Man with the swivelling eye who leaps out of nowhere to appear just inches from me. Perhaps I won’t sit in the front row next time… The show is loosely based on Mark Twain’s provocative text Is Shakespeare Dead? which heralded the still-ongoing heated discussion about the existence of Shakespeare, the authorship of the plays, and the Stratford-upon-Avon tourist industry. Sims is something of a Renaissance man – he writes, directs and performs in his shows, and all the puppets and masks are designed and made by Sims and his wife, Josephine Biereye. He talks intensely about the creation of the show, saying that he has no fixed opinion on whether Shakespeare did or didn’t exist, but is fascinated by the controversy and the notion of a whole culture based on what is possibly a fraud. He seems at his happiest not when he is talking about his doctorate on Jarry’s work, or his take on the authorship question, but when he is sharing the discovery that the Shakespearean tourist industry at Stratford was kickstarted by no less auspicious a name as circus proprietor PJ Barnum; or when answering questions about the functionality of the eye mechanism in Potato Man. Detail is everything in Patrick Sims’ world.
Whilst we are talking puppets, a shout out to Nordic Puppet Ambassadors from Finland, whose Only One Suitcase Allowed is a small-scale (miniature, even) one-one-one tackling an enormous subject – the Holocaust. (This was presented in the basement of the Southbank Centre’s Festival Hall.) It was beautifully done – one of my favourite shows in this year’s programme. Another firm favourite was Plexus Polaire’s Ashes, the brainchild of the eloquent writer, director and puppet-maker Ingvyld Aspeli – also Scandinavian, but in this case from Norway. The post-show for this one saw the whole international company on stage – three puppeteer-performers, a video maker, a lighting technician, and Ingvyld herself. It turned out to be a good call – we had a very sparky exchange on all aspects of the work, discussing the original inspiration, a Norwegian novel about arson; the writing and devising process when creating a visual theatre work about the process of writing (there’s a challenge!); the challenges of human v puppet wrestling matches; how to light puppetry of different scale effectively; integrating video, object and live action; and the argument for making one’s puppets as beautifully crafted and honed as possible. Yes, Ingvyld is also obsessed with detail. It is a puppetry thing, no doubt.
Another post-show to lead – this time at Soho Theatre, for Thomas Monckton/ Kallo Collective’s Only Bones. In contrast to previous show The Pianist, which featured a grand piano, a chandelier, and numerous other props that fought back at every opportunity, Only Bones sees this very able physical performer strip things back to just the human body (albeit an extraordinary one, his), a hanging light, and a couple of small props – including a bottle of red nail polish used to extraordinary effect. I saw (and reviewed) this one at the Edinburgh Fringe 2016, and it was a delight to see it again – just as proficient but if anything funnier, as the relationship with the audience had really grown and developed. The show was created in collaboration with Gemma Tweedie, whose onstage presence (both in the show and the post-show discussion) is as an interesting almost-still and almost-silent foil to Thomas’s exuberant presence. They make a great double act!
Vibrant UK-based circus talent continues to be supported at LIMF, with the 2017 programme including the charming, feel-good circus show Silver Lining: Throwback, which had Circus Hub audiences eating out of their hands at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2016 (where it was reviewed). The LIMF 2017 version, presented at Silver Lining’s home, Jacksons Lane, saw regular company performer/co-creator Niamh O’Reilly off duty and hand-balancer extraordinaire Alice Gilmartin filling Niamh’s shoes – and balancing canes – with aplomb. Joining a pre-existing ensemble at short notice is never easy, and the show, as seen on the first night of the run, was not quite as slick as it had been in Edinburgh – but it was just as bright and breezy and the (mostly young) audience loved it. The post-show talk was equally lively, with the cast of six (including company founder Tom Ball) joined onstage by Tom’s brother Simon Pollard (one of two co-directors of the show, the other being Paulette Randall). What a lovely bunch of people they are! We chewed over issues around safety – both in the sense of physical safety, putting your life in someone’s hands once you start training with them; and emotional safety, with reference to the inclusion of the piece of so much sensitive autobiographical material. We talked about the UK circus family; the training offered at the National Centre for Circus Arts (aka Circus Space); the relationship to audience in a show with no fourth wall, in which performers often step down into the auditorium; the involvement of a non-circus-trained director (Simon’s background is musical theatre); and the process of co-creation of circus work that has an over-arching theme rather than the usual linear narrative of theatre. This led to a very interesting discussion about the difference between the circus performer and the actor – everything we do and say is real, we are not actors, say Silver Lining – although they agree that they are employing the techniques of theatre in the construction of the work….
As always with the Mime Festival, there are shows that you’d love to see but just can’t fit in. My one that got away this year was Spanish/Catalan clown Leandre, who presented the UK premiere of Nothing to Say. Next time, hopefully. I would also have liked to have gone to the Clowns and Power Symposium, hosted by Bim Mason. Or indeed, the legendary Angela de Castro’s workshop How to be a Stupid. I did, though, get to see French clowns Sacekripa, whose Maree Basse (Barbican Pit) explored downtime and the ‘odd couple’ dynamics of male relationship with an intriguing mix of apple paring, wine drinking and knife-throwing.
I also missed Theatre Re’s Kantor-inspired ensemble work The Nature of Forgetting, but hopefully this world premiere show (presented at Shoreditch Town Hall) by a young UK-based company that LIMF have nurtured and supported for the past few years will make a return visit, or will tour.
The Festival also included Jolie Vann’s Imbalance, which Adrian Berry saw at Ed Fringe 2016; Dewey Dell’s Manga inspired Marzo, reviewed by Rebecca Nice; and Euripedes Laskardis’s intriguing-looking Relic (previewed by Donald Hutera).
So that’s it for this year – another London International Mime Festival done and dusted… and 40 years of magnificent Mime Festivals marked.
Congratulations to LIMF’s co-directors, Joseph Seelig and Helen Lannaghan, for another great edition, and to everyone who works for this extraordinary organisation. For one month of the year, you make London buzz and hum. You make us think, you make us feel, you make us laugh, you make us cry.
Long may LIMF continue to enchant and entertain us!
Featured image (top); Charleroi Danses: Kiss & Cry. Photo by Marteen Vanden Abeele.
Dorothy Max Prior is writing /co-editing a celebration of 40 years of the London International Mime Festival, which will be available later in 2017. Further details soon on www.mimelondon.com