Performing as part of the London International Mime Festival, French company, Autour du Mime (Pierre-Yves Massip and Sara Mangano) have used the training methods of Etienne Decrouux and Jacques Lecoq to develop a corporeal form of mime which they hope expresses universal and abstract emotions. They are members of the Marcel Marceau Company and use the traditional style inspired by Marceau’s famous character, Bip the clown. His Breton striped top, whitewashed face and heartbroken expression still typifies the mime artist for most people.
The first in a sequence of four scenes uses a poem by Jacques Prevert, the writer of Les Enfant du Paradis (which was about a mime pursuing an unrequited love). On a desert island, Massip writes or draws an image of a woman and she, on another, wakes and begins to enact his dreams. Communicating by unread messages in bottles, their ritualistic movements begin to tangle as she becomes aware that she is not in control of her actions and he grows frustrated by her lack of autonomy.
This theme of creator and creation continues into the second sequence. Massip struggles under the weight of a giant ball of terracotta clay before performing a metaphysical Art Attack as we watch him shape it into worlds. Violent and sensual as a creator, Massip turns as vengeful as an ancient God to destroy it.
The third sequence, which was originally developed for a tour of Iran, has Mangano trying to escape from the blue picture frame she is trapped behind. Lastly, the longer Tell me the truth, enacts a dysfunctional relationship of the ‘can’t live with them, can’t live without them’ variety.
For someone seeing traditional mime for the first time, the show is stilted and frustrating. At every turn it refuses to develop into something that could take me with it. The movement and interaction seems dated and closed in a way that repells engagement. Repetition and relentless gender stereotyping – the woman, trapped and needy; the man, all powerful creator – irritates. Yet, the work is hard to dismiss and the criteria we would usually use to judge a performance- how graceful and expressive the movement, how convincing the characters, how plausible the plot – becomes redundant when faced with this mute and coded world.
Perhaps the rebuttal of audience engagement is deliberate; Brechtian style alienation to prevent the audience from ever fully inhabiting the characters. Massip and Mangano make us constantly aware that they are performing. Looking over to shrug or raise their eyebrows, they put the onus for decoding their actions back onto the audience.
The build up of emotions that cannot be expressed through the rigidity of this form makes uncomfortable viewing. The pair seem traumatised by their lack of language and create a world where only misunderstanding is possible. Bound in self fulfilling prophesies, the poet’s dream-woman spreads her palms before her to show the invisible box that traps her, while the framed-woman climbs out of her frame only to find herself still in it. Neurosis in action, these obstacles are self imposed and imaginary but this makes them all the more paralysing.
By the end, the audience is desperate for the performers to break free. But as we cannot cry out for a move to dance or speech- or anything that could express their pain more fully – we are forced to internalise the situation. For the uninitiated this is strange stuff indeed. The autism of the piece frustrates, but perhaps this is where its power lies.