Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 20 January, 2004

London International Mime Festival directors Joseph Seelig and Helen Lannaghan have long maintained that the principal reason for retaining "Mime" in the title is brevity. As a descriptive term, it has broadened to the point where it sort-of encompasses any performance work with a significant physical and/or visual component. Thus, one of the flagship presentations of this year's festival, Toronto-based CanStage's production of The Overcoat, stands where the territories of theatre, traditional mime and dance abut one another. Directors Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling simply call it a "movement piece".

Movement there is, 80 non-stop minutes of it, plentiful and complex. Next to most of the pieces it will be compared with, this is a huge production: a cast of 22 and a versatile, deliberately impersonal set design by Ken MacDonald that together effortlessly fill the main Barbican stage. Gogol's story of the put-upon clerk who scrimps and saves for a magnificent new coat, only to have it stolen, is recounted wordlessly and with some variations, including a nicely ironic alternative ending: rather than continuing to roam as an embittered ghost, the piece ends with the man (Peter Anderson) happily donning another new "overcoat", a straitjacket.

Instead of dialogue, moods and events are dictated by a selection of musical pieces by Shostakovich. This is the aspect that both is and isn't dance. Panych and Gorling have synchronised movements precisely to the particulars of the score, but that other precision of individual physicality and the bodily vocabulary of dance are wanting. People gyrate, stretch and gesticulate grandly, part-dancing, part-silent movie acting. The tyranny of the office, the chaos of the streets, the mechanical commuter routine, the (literal) social whirl... all are portrayed in sumptuous detail, but not illuminated from within.

It's an immense and ravishing spectacle, and consequently radically at odds with the spirit of the original short story. It's recounted that when Gogol was first given the idea for it, all his companions laughed at the poor clerk's misfortune, but the writer sat silent and dejected, sympathising with the protagonist's misfortune. Such a connection is out of the question here: we can follow every nuance of the narrative, but not feelingly.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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