The London International Mime Festival has emerged from its origin as a showcase of UK talent to become a benchmark for contemporary visual theatre. The festival’s directors, Joseph Sellig and Helen Lannaghan, have once again compiled a strong cosmopolitan line-up from disciplines as far-reaching as circus, puppetry, dance and live art. This broad selection has often been cited as a failing of the festival, that it strays into a demonstration of pan-performing arts. However, the boundaries between the disciplines of physical theatre have evolved to a point whereby the interchange of ideas and methods legitimise sharing the same stage.
Traditionally, to mime is to codify meaning through the use of gestures, both bodily and facial. However, modern technologies and a more cross-disciplinary approach have expanded mimicry into a more free expression. Film, in particular, has allowed mime to explore new styles of representing illusion. Previously, the mime artist was the medium of the illusion: the climbing of an imaginary staircase, for example, was achieved through skilful execution. Now the camera is an alternative medium – with the additional lens, the techniques of camera operation have become as important as the technique of the artist.
The bleeding-in of other art forms has much to owe to the schooling of Jacques Lecoq. The French acting instructor espoused a form of mime that parted with the view that it simply conveyed a language of gestures; he instead encouraged improvisation and playfulness. His influence meant that the latter half of twentieth century mime was free to combine object theatre, choreography and acrobatics.
This year’s festival continues Lecoq’s legacy. It boasts a vast array of visual theatre from the puppetry of Blind Summit in The Table, to NoFit State Circus’ acrobatics in Mundo Paralel, to juggling (Gandini Juggling’s Smashed).
Two performances that have been particularly eye catching, and for very different reasons, are Camille Boitel’s l’immediat and Toron Blues’ Tendre Suie. L’Immediat is a spectacle of agility and comic timing. Seven acrobats somehow traverse the rubble on stage while tables collapse, mountains of boxes come crashing down and physical limitations seemingly risk the individuals’ safety. The performance captures ‘the uncertainty and mayhem of modern times’. But it seems to do so with fondness for it. None of the performers are bewildered by all of the chaos; instead they partake in the game, adding to the bedlam by moving the set and making life generally more difficult for one another. It’s a show that requires no deep thinking, the scenes of carefully acted errors and misjudgements is enough to elicit raucous laughter but it also gives the impression that we live in a world that is wonderful because it is imprecise.
Tendre Suie on the other hand explores something more visceral. Two women, lovers it seems, embrace and repel one another using a rope that hangs from the ceiling. Another rope tied into a knot hangs behind. At times, the two women playfully and erotically entwine, tenderly caressing one another, but at other times the intensity of their hostility is executed through aggressive movement on the rope and on the floor. The show is an interpretation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos, where ‘hell is other people’. Sartre’s play, with four characters trapped in a room together, depicts the presence of people to be far more torturous than any trap of the environment. Tendre Suie ends as it began, with a new rope dropping from the ceiling and the previous rope tied into a knot like the other at the back of the stage. But despite the endless futility we feel as though their interplay has led somewhere, even if it is back to the beginning.
The array of visual theatre in this year’s festival is helping resurgent interest in silent performance. In cinemas, The Artist is proving a huge success through a reimagining of the silent cinema genre. While the digitisation of archive footage of film and stage has developed interest from varying disciplines. Part of the vision of the festival is to help this interest develop into tangible ideas and projects. The festival runs workshops, activities and discussion sessions to share their skills to new audiences. Although largely receiving excellent reviews, critics have again this year reproached the festival for deviation from a strict mime genre, but we should not be dwelling on a form that has evolved beyond its origin, we should applaud the festival’s global approach in its aim to sponsor a future for visual theatre.
Visit the London International Mime Festival for more. The festival runs until 29th January.