While they’re rightly proud of their use of bespoke, state-of-the-art touchscreen technology (which does indeed ‘allow performer and set to become intrinsically one’), what’s really extraordinary about Green Eyed Zero’s Folie à Deux is that it manages to make juggling – and this isn’t an adjective you often see used to describe a generally unexpressive circus skill – poignant. Or rather, no. It’s not just poignant, it actually becomes quite moving.
Then again, both performers, Rachel Pollard and Sebastien Valade, are graduates of Circomedia, Bristol’s school of contemporary circus and physical theatre, and their director Bim Mason is co-founder and artistic director of said school – and for the last fifteen years or so, Circomedia has been exploring ways of integrating all things circus-y and physical with character, narrative and drama. Green Eyed Zero’s piece is, perhaps, one of the most successful yet to have been inspired by the school’s philosophy.
Set in ‘a retreat for the mentally unwell’, Folie à Deux is the story of two patients: a man with Cotard Syndrome (which causes him to think he’s already dead) and a woman with dissociative amnesia (amnesia caused by psychological trauma rather than a blow on the head or whatever). Over the course of the 70 minutes, we see them grow closer and their respective disorders transforming into a third, the eponymous folie à deux, which draws them into a kind of shared delusional madness. This begins harmlessly enough: they play games and juggle and an emotional empathy grows between them – which, in its turn, becomes positively helpful to the amnesiac, encouraging her to remember, confront and deal with the traumatic experience which plunged her into a memory-less state in the first place. In comparison with the conventional psychotherapy they receive via voice-overs from an unseen doctor, in fact, their relationship seems entirely beneficial – it gives the ‘dead’ man a sense of purpose and the woman a way into her past – and it’s only in the final sequence that the cost of their mutual delusion becomes apparent.
True, it’s not difficult to work out what this cost is going to be – or the nature of the trauma which the woman has suffered – but that’s not really the point. Everyone knows how Hamlet’s going to end, but that doesn’t render it any less tragic, and while Folie à Deux isn’t exactly Shakespearean in its impact, the inevitability of its outcome doesn’t detract from its effectiveness as an exploration of a relationship conducted at the very periphery of ‘the normal’.
Meanwhile, of course, that touchscreen technology is seriously impressive. Words seem to spew out across the screen when a book’s dragged across it; memories emerge into focus and then fade into distorted pixels; images and patterns spread out like the roots of a tree from each character’s head whenever they rest against it. It’s like having a noticeably less annoying Brian Cox as an invisible third performer – and while such wizardry could easily become the focus of the piece, Green Eyed Zero sensibly avoid letting it dominate (and you can have a demystifying go on it yourself afterwards anyway).
To be sure, such whirligig shenanigans aren’t going to appeal to everyone, and there’s a trace of rather-too-poised self-consciousness about some parts the show, but as a tentative, sometimes sweet, sometimes sour piece of physical theatre-cum-performance art, Folie à Deux has more to offer than most.