Lindsay Kemp is a law unto himself. It could be argued that he is a throwback to an age of more florid, more classical mime performance light years removed from today's physical theatre; one might, in contrast, cite the grandiloquent campery of his work as evidence that he would have been an outsider in any period.
He has, however, been largely devoid of appreciation in his native land, outside of a sprinkling of devotees. Kemp's first UK-based show in two decades, then, was always going to be an event of sorts; the peeling, de trop décor of the Hackney Empire provides the perfect surroundings for Variété, a work which pays equal homage to Charlie Chaplin's film The Circus and Georg Büchner's Woyzeck whilst never letting either reference point cramp Kemp's individual style.
The story is a straightforward one: simpleton Franz Vogel (Kemp) joins a small travelling carnival show, falls in love with the deaf-mute trapeze artiste Maria, loses her and murders her. This is to give nothing away, as the opening number of the musical shows Vogel on his way to the gallows, leaving the tale proper to unfold in flashback thereafter. But, as usual with Kemp, narrative is hardly the most important element.
In what is a first for him, Variété is a more or less through-composed musical. Since the events are set in 1930s Germany, Carlos Miranda's score carries strong Expressionistic overtones, further enhanced by the shifting colour washes of Chahine Yavroyan's remarkable lighting design. This is not the most digestible kind of music; nor, with erratic acoustics, does it make for great intelligibility – Ernesto Tomasini, as the Showman's "wife" La Belle Yvette, has a remarkable voice, but not even he can get a high proportion of the words across. Those lyrics which can be heard are often defiantly simplistic, chiming repeatedly upon the same basic rhyme.
At root, also, Kemp's performance style is just not my cup of tea. Rather than showing bravery in its rejection of moderation and contemporaneity, it hints to me at an almost sclerotic dogmatism. Even during the joyous sequence in which Vogel – in flying harness and big-bird costume – sets foot for the first time on the high wire, the audience laughter seemed tinged with indulgence. Kemp's determination to be seen as the onlie begetter of the production is visible when he appears to be grandly orchestrating the curtain call of female lead Nuria Moreno.
Put simply, Lindsay Kemp is an acquired taste. His dedication in pursuing his own vision over 35 years and several countries of residence deserves enormous respect and admiration, but it will not appeal to all. Put even more simply, lovers of flamboyant mime-rooted spectacle will love this flamboyant mime-rooted spectacle.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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