On my first visit to White Cabin, last August on the Edinburgh Fringe, I could appreciate why it had been so lauded, but I couldn't entirely see it myself. I mean that literally. The second half of this 70-minute show takes place behind and between a set of nested windows in otherwise opaque screens: optimum sight lines are quite narrow, and sat off to one side as I was, I was frankly stuffed as far as visibility was concerned.
This time, on Russian trio Akhe's visit to the Purcell Room as part of the London International Mime Festival, I was parked dead centre in the second row. This gave me not only a clear line of vision, but full access to the entire sensory experience: the smells of the (real) wine poured over the stage, the splashes of water from plastic bagsful, stabbed in a form of self-mutilation or suicide.
Not that I'm any the wiser for it. There are moments of magic: a ping-pong ball appears to roll across the stage in mid-air; two men begin to sing in blackout, but with light streaming out of their open mouths. There are moments of grim surrealism: a man tries to hang himself from a noose attached to a corkscrew overhead, and when he jumps off the chair he simply succeeds in emptying the bottle of wine over himself. There are passages of extreme density, when all three performers are engaging in separate activities on different parts of the stage, or when events in the aforementioned windows are over-projected with images reminiscent of the work of Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer.
What there isn't is any hint of defined meaning. My interpretation is that it's about communication, the desperate ways we attempt to make and also to stymie connections with one another, and the inevitable failure thereof and fatal decline... but who knows? There's a great dark enchantment to the work, a wonderful imagistic power. But I can't shake this stick-in-the-mud notion that a stage piece should have at least some palpable idea of what it signifies, or wants to signify. White Cabin's raft of dazzling ideas are not pressed into coherent service, and as an end in itself it remains ultimately baffling.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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