The London International Mime Festival is winding to a close, leaving us this sunday with an overt gesture and an invisible tear. And there has been little more overt than Du Goudron et des Plumes (Tar and Feathers), a big-ticket show of big-set pieces, defiantly crossing genre boundaries, merging narrative circus with mime, human puppetry and contemporary dance. Lyon based Companie MPTA and circus maestro Mathurin Bolze’s piece charges the space with inventiveness, and presents the question: what exactly is mime in the 21st century anyway?
A clutch of cloth-clad castaways are set adrift on a vast hanging platform, suspended above the stage, prismatic in space, time or water it is unclear. The production’s grounding in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is not particularly apparent, and what transpires is a little bit like Lord of the Flies crossed with the Canadian sci fi film Cube – an intermittently savage drama of survival set in dark space. Loose metaphors of small scale society frame a lot of leaping, swinging and expertly conceived monkey-business, choreographed gibbons, irrepressible homo ludens. A brown-skinned cast member is pummeled between two planks, abject and skillfully lifeless. A riot ensues, as a brown paper backdrop, priorly unfurled and used as a mesmeric surface for the projection of shadows, is slashed to pieces, and chunks of plaster are hurled like snowballs, powder tracers in the lights.
Perhaps in this post-essential world, mime can no longer be about the human condition. While energetic and beautifully constructed the violence appears from nowhere, and builds a haphazard picture of human interaction, shorn of recognisable paramaters, reduced to moments. Moments of abandonment, of escape, of assistance are enacted with breathtaking compositional skill but remain imprecise in terms of what, why and who. Certainly some of those moments are beautiful, none more so than the dance achieved by the female cast member, lowered on a rope, combining the movements required to keep her balanced with port de bras and precarious gestural eloquence, a twitching micro-display of performance under duress.
Something that might belong to mime proper, is the achievement of natural human effects by non-natural means. So we get the “walking” of a cast member, upside down along the underside of the hanging stage, using a collective effort of arm muscle; being walked on the ends of planks in two-by-four human puppetry; a scene in which the actions of one performer are mirrored by the actions of another hanging upside down, including plant pots and water-bottle pratfalls.
Another mime tenet might be the redefining of bodily relations to the object world. The pendulous stage is mined for every conceivable combination of stasis and movement, raised and lowered in three tiers, tossing and rearranging its struggling yet skillful inhabitants, a great kinetic will. Goudron shares a philosophy with Sans Objet, another highlight of the festival, that a stage is something to be made as utile as possible, treated as another performer, manipulating and manipulated, stripped, redecked, related to every bodily angle. This big-budget parkour approach to staging is utterly breathtaking. The onstage action is ably assisted by Philippe Foch and JÃ©rÃ´me FÃªvre’s score which transcends the circus template of faintly-globalised rackety trip-hop, to combine an artful pastoral electronica with keen noise-scaping, giving the platform stage a sonic presence, lending lashings of shaping texture.
Finally mime might be said to dramatise the distinction between space and non-space, safety and danger, where planks are walked, bodies are forever edging outward and retreating inward. At least tonight, the narrative possibilities of this feel slightly limited, and so, adrift from social meaning we are returned happily to the circus – to set-pieces, to gasps and wonder, sinuous and cute choreography, and winning trickery. Goudron might be bread and circuses, but it is also a cleverly persuasive feast.