The Pit, London EC2
Opened 19 November, 2009

The Told By An Idiot company formed in the early 1990s around an interest in using the performance techniques of clowning to achieve poignant or outright tragic effects. No weeping Pierrots here, but rather the clown’s simplicity: an innocence and openness that first wins your heart, then breaks it as you watch them buffeted by events or just the way of the world. Hayley Carmichael, in particular, has often seemed in her career to have a hotline to an audience’s collective heart. This show (the company’s first two-hander, and also amazingly their first visit to the Barbican) includes less blatant winsomeness than some, but nevertheless contains much that is cute, in the senses both of endearing and acute.
Carmichael and co-founder Paul Hunter have adapted (along with director Matthew Dunster) Michel Faber’s story about a pair of twins growing up in the Arctic with their anthropologist parents, or more usually left alone by them. The company’s method works well here, as the children approach the world directly: trying to understand it or influence it, acquiring knowledge and fashioning rituals for themselves... a microcosm, if their parents would but look, of the anthropological and ethological issues they are studying in the indigenous people.
The Arctic waste is a tabula rasa for the twins to write their version of the world upon, as they journey across it to lay their dead mother to rest. Naomi Wilkinson’s set, too, is a blank white space, all coated in fur – floor, walls, stools, a large slide – a surrealist touch reminiscent of Meret Oppenheim’s fur teacup. Nothing superfluous is contained in the 80-minute piece: no more is said or done than needs to be. Admittedly, some of the associations are far from obvious even on reflection, such as the soundtrack: I can understand the inclusion of a Saami yoik, and the atmospheric quality of Catalani’s aria Ebben? Ne andrò lontana, but the several mid-1970s pop/rock numbers mystify me somewhat. Still, in their portrayals Hunter and Carmichael manage at once to be inventive and yet to allow nothing to come between their characters and our connection with them. Ultimately the story resolves into a simple, downbeat coming-of-age fable; but neither in Faber’s writing nor in Told By An Idiot’s performance does “simple” mean “trivial”.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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