Critic Tom Morris effectively began his career as a producer by championing Nava Zukerman's Israeli physical theatre company Tmu-Na. In this capacity he booked the company's 1994-5 Show Transit Hotel into Battersea's BAC, and now as its new artistic director he will welcome them into the venue.
Tmu-Na aimed to go beyond the too-frequent British method of simply using physicality as a shorthand for passionate emotions; Zukerman's material often marries a series of anguished personal journeys with a flashpoint in the recent history of the state of Israel. The current production, in which survivors of a hotel siege 20 years ago gather for a reunion, is inspired by the Savoy siege of 1975 in Tel Aviv, in which 15 people were killed when the Israeli army stormed the building; the earlier event, though, is largely a device to provide a back-story of liaisons and sunderings which are to be explored in the current enclosed, almost claustrophobic setting.
The theory is appealing, as is Zukerman's approach to directing: she works outwards from the individual body language of each character, with a text being the last element to be defined. In Transit Hotel, however, these various strands (the Orpheus myth is in there too, somewhere) have come together in a tangle rather than a smooth weave. The performers' lines, as they tackle issues of personal sacrifice and the ghosts from their individual and collective pasts. have little depth; at times they recall the modus operandi of a 1970s disaster movie. In a worrying fundamental dramatic lapse, the stories of the piece are persistently told rather than shown; only their reverberations are seen on the stage, oddly divorced from the events which are supposedly driving them.
The company's energy and physical commitment are unquestionable and verge on the reckless, as they manipulate the few props (a clutch of hotel-lobby chairs, a table, a dozen candles) and their own bodies into tableaux and episodes of frenzied activity; but the physical work is, by Tmu-Na standards, formulaic – at some point virtually every member of the company leaps into a foetal position in the arms of another. Composer Murray Gold sits, shaven-headed and white-painted, high on a platform, providing an evocative but over-intistent keyboard and tape accompaniment; elsewhere, the use of stark lighting and smoke is drawn from an excessively familiar technical arsenal.
I have been an admirer of Tmu-Na since I first saw them electrify a small Edinburgh fringe venue at midnight several years ago. However, Transit Hotel, feeling as it does a little tired, may diminish rather than enhance their reputation.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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