Amit Drori’s Savanna looks like a mechanical Eden. Enchanting robot creatures nose the air and investigate the stage: a trundling tortoise, a springbok made of springs. There are “ohhhs” of wonder and delight as each new animal emerges.
Appearing as part of the London International Mime Festival, Drori’s work starts with a stage full of crates and boxes. In voiceover, he tells the story of his mother’s piano, an old instrument that required intense maintenance. The young Drori resented the way it took his mother’s time, but was awed by the sight of its inner workings, like the skeleton of an elephant or a whale.
When the piano finally became unfixable, he tried to build a creature from its strings and hammers. Savanna, A Possible Landscape is the story of that battle; it’s a landscape of memory and loss as well as a paradise of automata. Like the animals, designed by Drori and Noam Dover, it’s both bewitching and matter-of-fact.
By extending its aerials and adding tiny wheels, one puppeteer turns a transistor radio into an insect. Another unfolds a large moth, carrying it in “flight” about the stage. When he puts it down on a tree, it continues to flutter its delicate wooden wings. I love the tenderness with which Drori and his team pilot their creatures, every movement precise and gentle.
The elephant, the remains of the piano, remains a struggle. It has wonderful ears and a long, flexible trunk, but Drori fought to make it walk. On stage, the big elephant lies down to die, covered by projections of leaves. A smaller elephant walks bravely away: a solution, but not to the original problem.
These animals have bold personalities. A cardboard box rolls forward under its own steam. When the puppeteers lift it up, there’s a tortoise underneath, markings outlined in curves of pale wood. It’s not at all sure about the music rattling from the radio grasshopper. When the puppeteers retreat to a camping tent, the tortoise tries to follow them, but is baffled by the raised threshold. It rolls off in search of further adventures.
The observation of animals is superb, gorgeously realised in mechanical detail. The springbok’s legs are mounted on wheels, so that they piston in just the right rhythm as it rolls forward. A crane spreads beautifully articulated wings. The sightlines at the Barbican Pit are poor: the audience leans forward and cranes necks, reluctant to miss a twitch or a whirr of these fabulous creatures.
Until 26 January. Box office: 0844 848 5526. London International Mime Festival continues until 27 January, www.mimelondon