As you enter the Pit to take your seat for Bêtes de foire, it’s pretty clear where the Barbican staff end and the performers begin. There’s the obligatory all black clothing, the deadly seriousness of Elsa de Witte and Laurent Cabrol as they instruct rather than assist the audience but the most telltale sign is that they speak to everyone in French. Having taken ownership over this process, they retreat to the bric-a-brac shop set for lights up.
The set itself is a kind of nostalgic cliché of a country and a style of theatre so associated with that country. I assumed that this must be intentional. How could anyone make something as retrograde as this in 2018 and have it presented at the Barbican? The subversion I expected never happened though. In fact, what proceeded was pretty much everything you would expect to happen on that set. The action matched the setting perfectly. There’s no doubt that De Witte and Cabrol are highly skilled. Some of the object manipulation is virtuosic. If you want to see someone doing a bunch of stuff they are really good at really well then great but every section could have been removed and all it would have meant was a shorter total running time.
None of this would be surprising in another context: street theatre. The nostalgic, compact, easy-to-tour set that tells passing crowds exactly what it does on the tin; the stern personas barking instructions to the crowd; the modular virtuosic displays. I can imagine someone walking past five minutes of a show like this in a square in Toulouse and finding it utterly charming. They would take photos, post them online, people would comment. When they came back, it might even be one of those defining moments of their holiday. Brilliant. That’s just what this sort of thing is for.
Sitting down and watching it in the Barbican for an hour though, thinking of it like as a complete cohesive show, and the lack of tonal variation, the nostalgia, it all starts to grate. And it feels like the company have an awareness of this danger so they have brought out the theatrical equivalent of the dragons in Game of Thrones: a dog.
Sokha* steals the show every time it comes on because it is a dog and the others, talented as they may be, are resolutely not dogs. The tricks it does are simple enough, jumping through hoops, onto seats, stretching itself out etc., and they aren’t all that impressive in themselves but the absolute perfect timing is what makes it engaging to watch. To continue the Game of Thrones analogy though, I noticed that Sokha would turn up just as I was starting to get bored and wondered what I was doing here in the first place and what’s going on with Bram in the stupid cave and I really don’t care about….OMG DRAGONS/DOG!
This work clearly does have an audience and evidently I am not that audience, but there’s also an open question for me about where that audience can best be engaged with. A show like this can be dipped in and out of easily and may be better suited to that format. There’s an element of ‘end of the pier’ about it. It may be that some of its charm has been lost in the transposition to the Pit but, even it had more charm, it would still be a very backward-looking piece of work. By presenting work that feels this retrograde and clichéd, there’s a danger we reinforce people’s well-established assumptions about physical theatre, about mime, about European theatre – and surely that’s exactly the opposite of what this festival wants to do.
*I don’t know if Sokha is male or female, sorry.
The London International Mime Festival is on until 5 February 2018. Click here for more details.