A troubling disconnect between concept and execution ran through all three productions I saw this year at the Mime Festival, all the more vexing for how daring, haunting and awestriking previous productions have been, many of them still firmly, deeply lodged cellularly in the pleasure centres of memory. Each of this year’s shows felt a few polished drafts away from being finished, distressingly.
The Wedding @ Barbican
Acclaimed physical theatre company Gecko’s latest production is an ambitiously (over)scaled canvas investigating the interaction of citizen and state, incorporating the capitalist mechanisms that underpin society, coercive conformity within that structure, migrant crises and the struggle (impossibility, as Gecko would have you believe) of individual rebellion-a wildy unsubtle overreach that muddies and simplifies message. Although consistently sophisticated visually, the narrative suffers from a wilfull naivety, a reductive pessimism.
One by one, company members emerge from a chute, clutching teddy bears that must be relinquished onto a crowded symbolic heap of discarded childhood and move straight into responsible adulthood, hastily issued wedding dresses by an officious coterie of facilitators, who then quickly usher each individual into their position within a corporate environment, all the while the overlords (on occasion) are glimpsed as gloating baroque figures lasciviously consuming prodigiously profligate portions of food, feasting on profits, indifferent to personal adversity. A migrant family emerges wittily from within the Tardis-like confines of a suitcase, performing tricks for scraps of food or money, the husband dreaming of entrance into the working world, the aspiration a gulf away from reality.
The office denizens drink recklessly after shifts, collapse into argument or resentment at home with partners, generally slowly go mad and grow sour with the sheer exhausting repetition. The script has made up its mind that this is the fixed destiny of any individual, that the fate of the will and spirit is to be crushed and broken, that no way to cultivate a private rebellion or existence outside of this is possible, or that society hasn’t found sympathetic channels to assist the less fortunate-an irksome disingenuous reflex. Society has evolved to such a degree that numerous options are available to any one who may wish to quietly revolt-only a failure of imagination or passion could prevent one from finding consolation.
Something profound within me reacted strongly against the production’s dogmatic, soft-headed approach to the material, sanctimoniously convinced of its crude philosophical world view. The piece does end on a defiantly rhythmic and transporting percussive moment, the troupe assembled on stage in a synchronised choreography of vocalisation, clapping and stomping, a simple, straightforward feat of collective creative rebellion that puts the lie to the insistent agitprop that precedes it. The Wedding ran from 24-26 January as part of London Mime Festival
The Capital @ Jackson’s Lane
Birmingham’s Stan’s Cafe attempts a mosaic of urban interaction and experience with this piece played out along two counter-motion conveyer belts, the diverse quintet of performers assuming a kaleidoscope of characters and situations in constant kinetic movement, a continual forward thrust that very rarely allows for reflection or rest as lives spin out forcefully.
Although certain individual stories and persons recur, there is not one central character whose story arc acts as a through-line (an immigrant woman who arrives via the airport, left to make her way uncertainly to the gaping anonymity of the big city and new life, is seemingly introduced as this central focus, but is soon dropped, subsumed into the greater flux). The greatest design flaw is that an internal logic overall is lacking-no proper build exists to the material, no core of musicality.
It lurches from moment to moment quite clumsily, without visionary intention, and only fitfully exploits the tremendous potential of the psychological and emotional possibilities of the moving floors, and much of what is on display is rather pedestrian in action and gesture with too much mugging from the performers. The use of the conveyer belts demands (or promises) more physically agile, acrobatic staging, detail revealed more by dance than pantomime.
And the whole needs to accelerate to a crescendo of significance or note, a pointed statement-which never arrives (the backdrop falls in the final instant to reveal the sheer total of props used for the production and what must have been a comprehensive exertion of cast and crew in a relatively cramped space-itself an image of the teeming pace, bare mechanics and demands of the city?). An overextended opening sequence of chairs situated along the belts, initially sequenced in tidy, ordered placement gradually devolving into slight misalignment, then absolute chaos (overturned, stacked atop one another) quickly informs an audience that matters of timing and structure are out of place-what could be a light, witty statement of what is about to come is already overworked. Nina West’s sound design and music contribute tremendously to whatever verve and energy the production generates. The Capital ran from 31 January-3 February