The post-Christmas lull in London theatre every year comes to a definitive end with the London International Mime Festival. Over the next fortnight, the South Bank, ICA, Battersea Arts Centre and other venues play host to a range of performers including Nola Rae, Familie Flöz, Company F/Z and Gecko.
The term "mime" has long since broadened from people in white faces and black leggings doing the glass wall routine to encompass any theatrical performance with a significant, inventive visual aspect. As it happens, though, Maxim Isaev and Pavel Semchenko of St Petersburg's Akhe Theatre company do wear white faces, but that's where the similarity ends. In last year's Mime Festival, Akhe's White Cabin left me flummoxed but fascinated. Mister Carmen this year does little either to lessen the intrigue or to dispel the fog, with a programme note explaining(?) that their work presents "an image of the world where everything is connected and separate." Ye-ess...
Supposedly this piece is based on Merimée's Carmen in which "issues of freedom and slavery replace those of love and jealousy." Search me how these issues emerge from an hour in which the performers spend the bulk of their time writing the protagonists' names, Carmen and Jose, in a variety of ways: in aerosol whipped cream which is then eaten, or painting with a flower grasped between the toes ("Carmen" in carmine, ho ho), or even, thanks to a cunningly applied lighting filter, appearing to splutter the name "Jose" in water droplets.
Despite the Heath Robinson material construction of the show, it's executed with immense formality, even ritual. The variety of jerry-built props are laid out painstakingly and reverently; when one performer is doing his thing, the other sits attentively. Rolled-up cigarettes (possibly an allusion to Carmen's place of work) and glasses of wine are consumed as if in a kind of communion. It's this juxtaposition of shambles and holiness that gives Akhe's work its particular, curious air; a certain physical resemblance on the part of one of the duo makes the piece at times feel rather like watching the late Vivian Stanshall celebrate a Dadaist Mass. But it would be nice one day to understand one of their shows.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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