The raison d'être of Improbable Theatre is, in their own words, to take risks: to go into rehearsal with no set material and respond flexibly and spontaneously to whatever arises, whether in the devising process or on the night. With The Hanging Man, however, certain elements had to be settled in advance... not least for health and safety reasons, as performer Richard Katz spends at least two-thirds of the 90-minute show dangling in mid-air.
Katz plays Braff, an architect who hangs himself in the shell of a half-finished cathedral he has designed; however, feeling slighted by his taking the easy way out, Death goes on strike. It's a familiar concept to readers of Terry Pratchett's novels, except that Death here is not a looming skeletal figure but the restricted-growth actor Lisa Hammond, who paradoxically proves just as imposing.
Braff, hanging around in his indeterminate state, finds himself a tabula rasa for others' values: first feared as an abomination, then venerated as a kind of saint when people find themselves surviving all sorts of normally fatal events and conditions. A Napoleonic general visits to berate him for rendering war pointless, for how can a victor be ascertained without a body count? Periodically the six performers step out of their various characters (and Katz visits terra firma) for segments such an interlude where actors recite each other's death fantasies, taking "dictation" from recordings on MiniDisc Walkmans.
As with many devised shows, narrative impetus sometimes gets lost amid thematic musings; however, meditation and suspension are part of the nature of the Hanged Man in Tarot symbolism. Braff's attempted suicide is intended to be self-effacing, precisely the opposite of the status foisted upon him by Death's recalcitrance. Now and again, though, the pace inevitably flags. Once or twice, too, external circumstances supervene: a comical dance routine is somewhat deflated because the music, Liberty X's "Just A Little", has meanwhile been appropriated by a high-profile TV commercial. But the spirit of making theatre and meaning alike out of nothing, or out of whatever presents itself, and Improbable's collective joy in storytelling see the show through most of these pitfalls.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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