Circuses are a bit creepy – it’s just one of those things that everybody knows – and the atmosphere of the circus will be familiar to any audience sitting down to watch The Little Soldiers. Playing on this, Theatre Re keep the audience unsettled as they begin to tell the story of how two brothers, both circus performers, become obsessed with a tightrope walker, who plays them off against each other until their rivalry reaches its inevitable conclusion. Light on plot but full of invention, The Little Soldiers is a show combining physical theatre and mime from a company at the top of its game.
There’s no spoken language to be found here, but you don’t miss it for a second. Guillaume Pigé, Malik Ibheis and Selma Roth are all extremely gifted physical performers, with fantastic facial expressions to boot, and the whole thing is set off by Alex Judd’s incredible musical accompaniment. Judd plays the entire score live on three different instruments – the keyboard, an accordion and a violin – by recording and looping different parts. His circus-influenced score, at times slightly reminiscent of Yann Tiersen, sets the tone for the action perfectly.
None of the three characters are given names, even in the programme, and they feel more like archetypes than genuine, developed characters, though this fits in with the piece’s vague, dreamlike feel. It is frankly quite haunting, and between Judd’s music and the eerie combination of mask and make-up on the faces of the brothers, The Little Soldiers lingers somewhere on the border between beautiful and disturbing. It’s probably the closest experience I’ve had to watching a Sylvain Chomet film that isn’t watching a Sylvain Chomet film, but more in the sense of a shared sensibility than any particular similarities in events – and all the accordion music, of course. Accordions, like circuses, are just a little creepy.
If things lag a little in the middle third, it’s hard to hold it against them. The use of only mime and movement necessitates a fairly simple story, which is naturally a little difficult to pull off for a full hour. The whole thing is more than innovative enough to sustain interest, filled with images that look like photographs or paintings rather than scenes from a play; Pigé, who directs as well as a performs, has a sense for the visual that is, at times, breathtaking.
Theatre Re spin their tale with only three instruments, four bodies, a stepladder and a microphone. There is something unchained about its sheer imagination that feels almost childlike, but it is the seriousness of the child at play, with none of its innocence; several of the most memorable moments in The Little Soldiers are dark, dark, dark, and as a look at human nature it is bleak indeed. In the wake of their success with The Gambler at the 2012 Fringe Festival, this innovative international company have created another piece of theatre worth talking about – and one that is as enjoyable to watch at the time as it is memorable after you have left.