I have a lot of respect for lighting designers. They don’t get the same level of recognition as directors and playwrights, or even set and costume designers like Lez Brotherston, yet tune into it and you become aware just how much some artfully created lighting can add to a production. Teatro Delusio by German mask-makers extraordinaire Familie Flöz, isn’t interested in lighting designers, but it is interested in the other under-appreciated members of the theatre world: the technicians and stagehands, the faces literally ‘behind the scenes’.
Like many odes (aside from those to Grecian urns and the like) Teatro Delusio expresses its respect for its subject through gently poking fun. It’s that ‘I only say it because I love you,’ humour that comes out in laughing at your beloved’s idiosyncrasies (like using the word ‘problematic’ to describe a piece of semi-stale gingerbread). Familie Flöz solicit a lot of laughs in this work from a series of slapsticky routines involving – among other things – yards and yards of tangled electrical wires, workshy assistants and half-hidden furry pets. They also have fun with the comedy of the workplace in general, the petty hierarchies and banter bus crashes between ill-suited colleagues. With its push-me-pull-you double act routines worthy of the Chuckle Brothers, there’s a lot about this show that’s good old fashioned family (or, familie) fun.
Yet combined with the chortling are elements of the surreal, including a revisited scene of a ghostly presence floating through the backstage area. Perhaps this is a reference to the other presences besides stagehands found offstage in theatres, the severed heads of the Lyceum or the whole school of spectres said to inhabit the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. In truth, it’s not really clear what it is meant to be – ditto a late scene involving one of the male characters giving birth to twins that are then stolen from him by the opera house’s leading diva.
The narrative is in fact slightly patchy and definitely the weakest part of the whole work. However, the degree to which this matters is massively decreased by the overarching technical skill of the performers (three actors playing around 30 different characters) and, above all, the ingenuity of the masks they wear. Watching Familie Flöz perform is akin to taking part in one of those psychology experiments relating to how the brain reads the emotions of other humans.
The masks, quite obviously, cannot change in expression, yet as each character plays out their scenes you instinctively read the same facial expression as meaning a whole range of different things. In part this is down to the rest of the body language of the performer and, I’d guess, our ability to project onto a character some sense of what we expect to see (she looks sad because I’ve decided this is a sad scene from other clues such as the music). It’s also down to the cleverness of the masks themselves, which appear to change in expression when viewed from subtly different angles. So a tip of the chin upwards makes the nose form part of a haughty expression, and a tilting down gives us little bits of pathos around the eyes.
As part of the London International Mime Festival, the production is a great testament to the power of non-verbal communication and the dexterity of performers who specialise in it. As with all the hidden people who create the final theatrical production, when we go beyond the words that often form the surface level part of communication there’s the possibility of discovering the most interesting part of the story.
Teatro Delusio was on as part of the London International Mime Festival 2017. Click here for more details.