Friday 10 January 2014

À Bas Bruit – Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House

[London International Mime Festival]

As I’ve already noted, the main thing I took away from À Bas Bruit ("at low noise") was a whole lot of thoughts about representations of gender on stage. But before we get back to that in this review, let’s have a look at what the show actually is, what happens, how it operates, what happens. You know, the stuff it’s useful to know before analysing things.

As we walk in, the stage of ÀBB is set with a raised wooden platform on the left hand side: a giant hamster wheel on top and a load of machinery underneath. On the right hand side, set at a jaunty angle to the platform, is a kind of low, raiseded raft with a metal sail and a long treadmill running through its centre. Behind this hangs a pair of wooden Venetian blinds.

Two blokes dressed in loose casual contemporary clothes appear to the strains of something that sounds like Penguin Café Orchestra being played on rubber bands (if they didn’t do that themselves). They do a bunch of movement. It’s part contemporary dance and part acrobatics (maybe even “circus-skills”). It is, as we might expect, deft and thrillingly executed.

[In a recent conversation with Tom Parkinson, who did the music for Bryony Kimmings’s Credible Likeable Superstar Role-Model, he advanced the view that non-textual elements of theatre/performance suffer for not being like-for-like with the medium in which they’re generally discussed – i.e. more text. He was thinking particularly of music and sound (although conceded that he’d read a lot of music journalism where the writing had described music much better than the music itself turned out to be – which is another interesting, difficult problem of criticism), but I think it applies equally to *movement*. And the more acrobatic it is, the more it suffers. It’s a bit like trying to write about car chases in films or sex. A blow-by-blow account of the actual movements taking place will usually fail to communicate the actual excitement generated, and impressionistic treatments quickly become too vague to communicate.]

Interestingly, here it does feel like there is a definite lean toward some sort of narrative impulse. But where those impulses are leading, what that narrative is, is still pretty opaque. There is a sense that the whole could be entirely episodic. That each section of different sorts of movement, done by different performers on different bits of the set, are each their own self-contained stories. Is there meant to be a wider arc? Given the two guys, one woman set-up the most obvious readings tend toward a kind of Men Behaving Badly, crossed with Betrayal, crossed with Jules et Jim kinda thing. And there certainly seems to be something about that. Do the men share a physical space are are they unknown to each other? Are they both vying for the attentions of the same women, or is the sole female performer playing more than one woman? Is it a tragedy or a comedy? Are they even always playing their own gender? When a light-hearted physical sequence on the treadmill sees one male-female pairing go from her kind of playfully attacking him to him beating and then apparently strangling her under lights which change from “outdoors” to *under red lights with a massive sharp strobe effect* (surprising shades of Secret Theatre #ShowOne), is the audience really still meant to be laughing? (in the event. As soon as she’s “died”, *he* goes off, and then she wakes up, does a head-stand, and the lighting state changes to suggest it’s morning in her bedroom or something).

In short, this piece feels like it could *really* have done with a good dramaturg. There was a cheat-sheet supplied at the beginning of the show. I haven’t read it yet. I wanted to watch the show and see what I got from it without the leading prompts of a number of quotations.

[I still have quite a conflicted view of these things. Some have totally made a show for me, others have irritated me out of liking a piece which I’d actually quite enjoed until I read the silly rationales behind the thing I’d enjoyed. It’s tricky, isn’t it? But maybe it’s self-indulgent to want your own interpretation to stand over and above a director’s explanation of what it is they think they’ve made. Ok, I’m going to read the thing...]

The cheat-sheet is interesting. It divides the piece into four movements. Each movement is described by (or perhaps was inspired by) a different paragraph-long quotation. Interestingly/excitingly, the quotations themselves did more to remind me of specific moments in the show than just thinking about what happened in the show. The passage: “This fable begins in a deserted place. It is a very large living room, large enough to make any escape from it impossible. The other character is he who paces up and down the room, he who walks. He walks endlessly...”

It also reminded me of how indebted to Pierre Rigal’s Press parts of the piece felt (video trailer of that remarkable show here). Which in turn reminds me of the sequence that reminded me of a kind of high-octane version of that sequence of the woman throwing herself repeatedly into the man’s arms from Café Müller.

So, yes – to recap: I found it brilliantly executed. I think I found quite a large amount of *what* was well-executed surprisingly familiar. I found it much more episodic than *Four sections*. And I personally found the reduced stage-time and role of the woman in the piece suggestively problematic. That said, in her only significant solo routine – around a pole in the hamster wheel – which I dreaded turning into some sort of protracted pole-dance, it really didn’t. Instead Elise Legros’s solo looked more like a series of stills alternating between Soviet victory posters and Renaissance paintings of martyrs as the wheel slowly revolved changing the axis of the pole and her relationship to it.

In the spirit of team-criticism, I should direct you to Lyn Gardner’s four-star appreciation of the piece. I’m quite envious that she’s got form with the company, and so is able to put the work more into context in that way. And she’s just tweeted at me to say:
Gosh. didn't see show in terms of gender politics at all. thought she was on completely equal terms. Physically very much so.”
and “Didn't see it as a romantic relationship. And thought she did fair share of slam dunking...”.
Both of which are, of course, equally fair perceptions. And I’m quite pleased to have someone to quote to balance mine out. It makes me worry slightly that my feminism has gone a bit hair-trigger, but I have talked to a couple of other women who said they did see what I saw.
So, no definitive conclusion, but at least I know I’m not just mad or trying to make difficulties unnecessarily.

A thought-provoking show in many ways.

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