A clown locked down in a beautiful Mexican house, Pinocchio swallowed by a whale, battling Action Man dolls, and a live magic lantern show about space and time… Dorothy Max Prior encounters a visual feast at LIMF 2022
The London International Mime Festival, which runs annually through January into early February, is a highlight of the year for any of us with an interest in physical and visual theatre, circus and puppetry – all of which are always well represented.
After a wholly online edition in 2021, LIMF 2022 was back ‘large and live’ with a programme that, due to the wickedly disruptive double-whammy of Covid and Brexit, favoured UK-based artists boasting many different skill-sets – and indeed nationalities, for the UK physical theatre and circus world is a truly international one.
The live programme included high-profile names like Gandini Juggling, Barely Methodical Troupe, and Vanishing Point, together with rising stars Thick & Tight, Theatre Re and Sadiq Ali. There was also an appearance by LIMF favourites Cie 111 from France, who presented aSH, the final in Aurelien Bory’s trilogy for renowned female dancers – in this case, Shantala Shivalingappa.
Normally, I’d be racing out of my Brighton house and braving the eccentricities of the Southern Rail network at least three times a week to catch shows – and after the 2021 online edition, was really looking forward to LIMF 2022. Sadly, I found myself grounded by Covid, and thus had to miss most of the live programme. But I found consolation in the commissioned film programme and other online events…
Despite the admirable return to live programming – beating the Omicron odds to somehow get everything up and running, with only a few glitches along the way – online content remained a key part of the LIMF 2022 programme, which included a number of commissioned ‘performance to camera’ works. Given the problems of bringing in work from overseas, directors Joseph Seelig and Helen Lannaghan reasoned they could preserve the international element of the Festival through these film commissions, which this year all went to overseas artists.
The commissioned artists, people whose work they knew and liked, were given a completely free rein to create a short film that isn’t driven by spoken text. The five were: Dewey Dell (Italy), an offshoot of the legendary Castelluci company; Hiroaki Umeda (Japan), a Tokyo-based choreographer, photographer and video artist creating mesmerising visual environments for his visceral live performances; Delgado Fuchs (Switzerland) whose body-based work involves dance, performance, installation, photography, video, fashion and fine arts; Gabriela Muñoz from Mexico, a clown best known for her portrayal of a woman desperate for companionship and marriage in Perhaps, Perhaps, Quizas, seen at LIMF 2018; and Patrick Sims (France/USA), the founder and former creative director of renegade puppetry company Buchinger’s Boot Marionettes, moving on to create his current company Les Antliaclastes, who have been seen at LIMF numerous times.
I enjoyed all five short films, but the two that interested me most were those by Gabriela Muñoz and Patrick Sims.
Gabriela Muñoz’ PLANT presents a Groundhog Day scenario as the life of a woman unfolds from morning to evening over and over in endless locked-down repetition.
The film is performed and shot in the Casa Organica – a retro futuristic fantasy home designed by Javier Senosiain. There are no straight lines or edges: the walls are curved and windows are either large amoeba shapes or small circular port-holes. Inside, the living spaces are womb-like interior caves. The house’s fixtures, fittings and furnishings are lingered over lovingly by the camer and include white formica kidney-shaped tables a gold chair shaped like a hand, a pineapple sculpture, and bowls of big brightly coloured metallic balls. Essentially, the house plays the starring role.
For its occupant, Chula the Clown, each day is the same: a bath-time scrub down with a loofah (wearing a hilarious nude costume), getting dressed in a pink puffa tunic with lurid pussy-bow scarf, a quick inspection in the full-length mirror, and breakfast eggs (shaken to see if they are live!). Outside in the garden, we’re in Teletubbies country as our heroine romps around on ferociously landscaped grass hills, slides gleefully down a big slide, and cradles a toy bird in her hand. Back indoors, her afternoon pastime is completing a blank jigsaw. Her evenings alone see her swigging from a wine bottle, dancing a whirling dervish dance round her room, and collapsing in a heap on the sofa.
The Groundhog Day repetition is given to us with the accompaniment of cheesy toy-town tune that speeds up as each day goes by. Then, a change. One morning our clown wakes and there is no musical accompaniment to her life, just the sound of her own sighs. A new soundtrack starts up: a discordant electronic whine and click giving way to a melancholic symphony. Everything is the same, but everything is different. Nothing is quite right. Breakfast, garden, little bird, jigsaw – all spoilt. Things go from bad to worse, until the arrival in the garden of a Deus Ex Machina brings resolution…
The film feels complete, working well as a short. It is skilfully shot and directed by Guillermo Llama Altamirano, Gabriela Muñoz as Chula the Clown is a beautifully melancholic persona, and Andrés Landon’s soundtrack does exactly what is needed in a non-verbal film, driving the narrative and providing the mood and tone for each scene.
The Ribs and Terror by Patrick Sims is also about containment and boredom, and the fear of change (post-pandemic, this is hardly surprising!). In this case, we have an imprisonment within an imprisonment. The first character we meet is a (puppet) whale, sitting on the toilet in a decrepit old bathroom, striking the days off on a calendar. It opens its jaws to yawn, and we cut to inside its ribcage where we come across imprisoned puppet number two – a beautifully-crafted marionette with a long nose, a dunce’s cap, terrifyingly real eyes, and furry donkey ears. Like Gaby Muñoz’ clown, this little creature, trapped in its environment, is both bored and easily amused by childlike pursuits of sliding and tumbling and playing with objects in their environment. An oyster shell reveals a pearl as big as the creature’s head, the shell then becoming a makeshift bed…
The Ribs and Terror is described by Sims as ‘a tale of Pinocchio inside the whale. Pinocchio does not want to become a real boy, he likes it where he is and does not want to leave. This resistance causes much belly-ache for the whale. The concept of the “Jonah syndrome” permeates the story – that is, when an individual is less afraid to die than to live to his fullest potential’.
The piece references not only Carlos Collodi’s Pinocchio and the biblical tale of Jonah and the Whale, but also Three Men in a Tub and Herman Melvilles’ Moby-Dick – Captain Ahab makes an appearance – and he’s not the only one to lose a leg to a whale!
The video was inspired by themes developed during the making of a live theatre production, Ambergris, which features many of the same characters and sets, and Sims acknowledges the influence and inspiration of both Georges Meliés and Jan Svankmayer (it is Svankmayer who is the most obvious inspiration here).
The soundtrack to the film – a pre-existing piece called ‘Lullaby for a Sinking Submarine’ by longtime Sims collaborator Ergo Phizmiz – drives the action and provides the frame for the separate scenes.
There’s a whole host of extraordinary images here – and as we’d expect from this master of surreal puppetry, wonderful design and making throughout. But to be brutally honest, beautiful though the visual imagery is, it feels like what it is: an adjunct to another, bigger project. At more than 16 minutes, it is too long for the short film brief, and feels like it is desperately seeking a film director to pull it into shape, if it is to exist as a film short.
As a word-free film the soundtrack is all important – and Ergo Phizmiz’ mulch of tipsy sea-shanties, accordion drones, music boxes, violins and foley sound is perfect.
I did manage to get to two live shows: one about masculinity that featured sparring Action Man dolls, Luche Libre wrestlers, cadavers, crisps and a war on tupperware; and the other a visually stunning created-live-before-our-eyes animated film about time and space that features a love story that unfolds as a balancing act between art and science.
Opposable Thumb followed up their fabulous Coulrophobia with another two-man show, Big Boys Don’t Cry, presented at Jacksons Lane, in which company co-founders/performers Adam and Dik take us into the beating heart of the modern male and attempt to answer the burning question: what maketh a man? Nature or nurture? Mind or body? Cheese ‘n’ Onion or Prawn Cocktail?
The show is structured as a classic three-act play – although that nod to traditional form is where it ends. The first two acts focus on autobiographical material of each of the men in turn, and the third is the denouement or showdown. Each act is supplemented by intervals of film projection, with family photos and shaky super-8 and video clips showing us our heroes as tiny tots.
Act 1 focuses on The Puppet Master – the alter-ego of Dik Downey, who has mortality on his mind. An Action Man tabletop fight is an amusing commentary on the lure of war games to young males, and Downey’s expertise as a puppeteer is evident in the skilled manipulation. We move into a reflection on the death of the performer’s father, as a spookily realistic mannequin of a cadaver is wheeled on for a surreal post-mortem in which red balloons and flowers erupt from the corpse. Overlooking the cadaver is a reproduction of Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’. The art masters motif continues with a Leonardo da Vinci puppet astride a toy helicopter (da Vinci having invented a prototype helicopter, allegedly) and a shaggy dog Mona Lisa story…
Act 2 belongs to The Bear – Adam Blake. The main theme in this act is male anger. There’s a magnificent battle with tupperware boxes and their ill-fitting lids, in which both men use their very able skills as clowns to push the frustration to a ludicrously intense level. An audience member, Ben, is embroiled in an attempt to ‘turn anger into a game’. Ben is angry because, although he deliberately booked seats near the back so he wouldn’t get picked on, he ended up at the front. Ben learns how to be an angry cat.
Act 3 gives us a Mexican wrestling contest, with our combatants dressed in fabulously excessive crisp-packet inspired costumes: Prawn Cocktail v Cheese and Onion. Following a round of foolish falling about and clasping of bodies, we are treated to a bout of slapstick confessions. As the slaps ring out, we hear of our two combatants fears, failures and regrets as they work through the lifetime struggle of ‘being a man’: one hates his fat legs, the other hates football. One has an under-developed penis, a child with Down’s Syndrome, and a wife better than him at DIY; the other didn’t say goodbye to his dying dad.
Although less immediate than Caulrophobia, and with some inevitable ‘new show’ wobbles in pacing here and there, Big Boys Don’t Cry is a great addition to the company’s repertoire, and with a bit of mucking-in over the coming year will, I’m sure, be up there with that seminal first show. It’s a great example of clowning and physical theatre tackling the big subjects in life and winning. Ding ding!
Over at the Barbican Pit, French company Stereoptik (Romain Bermond and Jean-Baptiste Maillet), were back with their latest handmade spectacle, Stellaire, a love story unfolding through space and time, set in a magic-lantern world, using a fabulous variety of media – paper, chalk, charcoal, sand, water, silhouette theatre and projection – to create a wondrous cartoon-theatre created live before the audience’s eyes. The two artists work together on the visuals, whilst also providing a live soundtrack using synthesisers and acoustic instruments (including a drum kit). It is hard to believe that all this is done by just two people! I love the blend of hi-tech and lo-tech, as parks and people, spacecraft and galaxies emerge as if by by magic on the screen, then dissolve to make way for the next beautiful image.
In an interview with the creators reproduced in the LIMF programme, Bermond says ’Stellaire ties a love story together with the creation of the universe. Both phenomena embody expansion and movement. When two people meet and live a love story, there’s a form of expansion – the birth of children, or the family history they become part of’. This is a love story that evolves between a male artist (a cartoonist) and a female scientist (an astronomer), in a way representing the marriage of art and science in this story of space and the stars. There are times when the whole thing becomes a little bit too ‘educational’ for my taste – for example, we are given the female astronomer’s lectures at a conference on time and space, which feels a little clunky. But this is a small complaint – it doesn’t detract from the beauty and wonder of the work. A truly visual theatre.
Feautured image (top): Oposable Thumb: Big Boys Don’t Cry.
London International Mime Festival ran 12 January to 6 February 2022.
For further information on these and other shows, films and events presented at LIMF 2022, see www.mimelondon.com