Dance: Buchner gets the silent treatment
Sunday 17 January 1999
ENB: 'Cinderella' Coliseum, WC2
Of all the ways to re-interpret a classic play, doing without the text would seem to offer the ultimate freedom. But Jozef Nadj's wordless Woyzeck, which opened the 21st , goes one further and chucks out the plot as well.
It ought to have helped to know Buchner's harrowing play, written just before the 24-year-old author succumbed to typhoid fever in 1837. But Nadj's adaptation, though powerfully reminiscent of the play's moods and themes, contrives to avoid any suggestion of narrative. Ten minutes in, we're still unsure which of the gruesome, clay-smeared figures on stage is Woyzeck. The jealous murder of Marie - which, in the play, is the culmination of all Woyzeck's degrading experiences as a poor military barber and medical guinea pig - is never shown at all.
Nadj, a Hungarian who trained with Marcel Marceau, presents the major themes of the play through a build-up of physical detail, like fragments of memory re-ordered in a dream. The numbing claustrophobia of Woyzeck's life is conveyed by the stage itself - a shoebox in which the eight characters bump and nudge and assault each other for lack of space.
The impression is of a lunatic hell-hole in which obscure and possibly obscene experiments are carried out. The inmates are lumpen, half-made puppets worked by violent unseen powers. Messy and ultimately futile tasks obsess them: piecing together broken eggs, modelling figures in wet clay then squidging them and starting again; or competing to crush apples in a show of manual strength.
A desperate humour fights to redress the morbid sense of decay. The Woyzeck figure, played by Nadj, is a bizarrely amiable Monsieur Hulot with long gangly fingers and a flamboyant haircutting style which spatters wet muck as he snips. His famous diet of peas makes its effects felt when he turns to the wall to pee, spraying a bullet-like shower across the floor.
The most discomfiting laugh is the one Woyzeck gets when he sticks a knife in his own belly and skewers out the liver, which he proceeds to eat with curiosity (it makes a change from peas). Dehumanising his anti- hero to a point beyond absurdity, Nadj underpins the political thrust of Buchner's play. It forces us to consider what it is to be at the mercy of circumstance, and slave to a rotten system. I don't pretend I wasn't baffled by some of these images, but they continue to prey on the mind.
A more light-hearted application of physical skills is revealed by the double act BP Zoom, which followed later in the Festival. Mr B is American Bernie Collins, in the persona of a French Basil Fawlty. His stooge, Mr P, is Frenchman Philippe Martz, an immaculate but myopic Evelyn Waugh whose genteel playing of the spoons, to accompany an American call-and- response song, was one of the funniest things I have ever seen.
The chief fascination of this pair, beyond the inspired articulacy of their body language, is how they limit themselves to very few gags and milk them to the nth degree. Their opening trademark - the two of them squeezed into a Fiat 500, which sports egregiously wayward windscreen wipers - goes on so long you think that might be all there is. But there follows an inspired fantasia on playing the spoons (Mr P's the virtuoso here), and a long-extended number involving a microphone cable, which climaxes in Mr P getting his shoelace tied into the wiring and plucking the overstretched mike cord to perform a wild cover of "Fever". Rare exponents of the true spirit of vaudeville, BP Zoom's ability to provide an hour's worth of gentle hysterics makes them worth two weeks on pure oxygen at a health farm.
English National Ballet could have done with a shot of that laughing gas in their Cinderella, which rounded off their season at the Coliseum last week. Michael Corder's choreography strives for humour but misses by a mile. And there's nothing more depressing than feeling sorry for performers who are trying too hard. The mistake was in writing the two step-sisters as ballerina roles rather than pantomime dames, as Ashton did so winningly in his version for the Royal Ballet. Corder struggles against the odds to create character using extravagant show-off steps, but the pair's flouncing and grimacing cannot disguise the fact that the classical dance is an art of refinement that doesn't readily admit vulgarity.
Unfortunately, the sisters' rival antics are the main source of liveliness in ENB's production. Cinderella herself is a cardboard cut-out. Though Larissa Ponomarenko was as fleet and proficient as you'd expect from a Leningrad-trained soloist, her acting didn't extend beyond looking fragile and sad. Perhaps Sylvie Guillem can one day be persuaded to give a masterclass on how to deliver the kind of full-fleshed, detailed character which makes the most fiendish steps look part and parcel of her thoughts. Her Juliet in MacMillan's ballet, revived for the umpteenth time by the Royal Ballet, sets a benchmark for all time. Who else can make Juliet's first airborne pas de deux with Romeo look as if she's never done it before? Nearly giggling with amazement, you can almost hear her saying "Oh wow!"
Mime Festival: various venues (0171 637 5661), to Sunday 24 January.
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