Everything but a plot

Narrative is unnecessary when you have acrobatics, trippy music, an indoor rainstorm, flashing lights and a hail of plastic toys. Well, so say the creators of `Periodo Villa Villa', who are testing the limits of theatre.
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The Independent Culture
You're packed together so tightly in a darkened chamber, you pray your neighbour has remembered to put on their deodorant. A light darts around the high paper ceiling like an ecstatic Tinkerbell, closely followed by nine scampering performers in harnesses. Suddenly the actors smash through the ceiling, swooping vulture-like on unsuspecting members of the 800-strong audience, and you're into a breathtakingly different world, a maniacal cross between Billy Smart's circus, Marat/Sade and Mad Max.

Periodo Villa Villa, the exhilarating new offering from the Argentinian De La Guarda company, actually gives you several shows for the price of one - aerobatics, music, dance, lights, mime, circus, performance art, climbing and architecture. Everything, in fact, except a plot. "L'art pour l'art" may be a French expression, but I'm sure it holds good in Argentina, too. Equipped only with harnesses attached to the scaffolding structure and seemingly inexhaustible supplies of energy, the company deliberately eschew words or the imposition of any sort of message. They ridicule the notion, for instance, that the act of snatching away audience members is a symbol of the Disappeared during the military regime in Argentina.

Pichon Baldinu, the co-director of Periodo Villa Villa, rejects the very concept of words with a dismissive wave of the hand. "They're not necessary," he states. "We're working with emotions, which you don't have to explain. You can play to 800 people without saying, `I'm the king and he's the doctor.' Everyone picks his own message. Emotions don't have interpretations."

During the hour-long show, the audience certainly run through the full range of emotions. They are drenched by an indoor rainstorm, a hail of plastic toys and a ticker-tape snow storm reminiscent of the 1978 World Cup Final in Buenos Aires. At the same time, they are dazzled by the sort of dare-devil stunts usually confined to Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Whether slam-dunking each other into the walls or criss-crossing in the air like deranged Red Arrows, the company must have pretty steep insurance premiums. They may fly through the air with the greatest of ease, but it still looks terrifying.

Hippy and trippy - all flashing lights and beaty music - the show chimes with rave-generation culture. It seemed to go down especially well in Utrecht in Holland last month with a couple I had earlier seen staggering out of a coffee-house called "Headshop". Periodo Villa Villa boasts enough gasp-inducing, visceral effects to leave you in need of chemical assistance yourself. It is truly shared-experience theatre, as you emerge clinging for dear life to the person whose personal-hygiene habits you doubted but an hour before. Dazed and confused yet strangely uplifted, you feel like Diego Maradona after a particularly heavy night.

Lucy Neal, the co-director of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT), where Periodo Villa Villa is being performed this week, raves herself when describing the show. "This kind of work with a high-energy dance edge and performers hurling themselves about has a tendency to be hard and threatening. But people at these warehouse events are tired of cars crashing into each other and music so loud your ears bleed. De La Guarda are about generosity, pleasure and giving." Giving you the shakes, maybe.

Periodo Villa Villa forms the centrepiece of LIFT, but the nagging question remains: is this grab-bag of acrobatics and artiness actually theatre at all? Isn't it just Chipperfield's Circus with added rain? Won't audiences find themselves agreeing with the eminent Frenchman who (nearly) said, "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas le theatre"?

Diqui James, the other creator of Periodo Villa Villa, sits next to Baldinu at a rickety trestle-table by a Portaloo and swigs from a bottle of Coke. He is backstage at the Utrecht Theatre Festival in Holland and laughs off questions about the show's legitimacy as part of such a gathering. "It's obvious that this is theatre," he asserts. "At first people said to Jimi Hendrix, `this is not music', but within three years they recognised that it was music, it was just different. We're using other disciplines to grow - that happens too in rock 'n' roll and cinema. When theatre leaves the conventional stage, it starts to draw on other artforms. Our policy is: never say never to anything."

It's not just me wondering about De La Guarda's theatrical credentials, however. "There is always discussion in the press and the theatrical establishment about whether we are theatre," Baldinu concedes. "But we find it funny. Our show is something new for critics. They don't make the effort to understand our work or give it a new interpretation. The media is conservative. They're afraid to put us in the category of theatre."

Neal is not putting up with any journalistic carping about the definition of theatre, either. "Periodo Villa Villa is a genuinely new type of performance," she declares. "We profoundly believe - and this pulse runs through the festival - that theatre is an accessible and popular artform. It plays to everybody, and nobody should feel left out by it."

But how does she justify as theatre LIFT events such as Un Peu Plus de Lumiere, surely just a glorified firework display in Battersea Park, or Cirque Ici, a circus with four acoustic musicians on Clapham Common, or La Feria de Los Cinco Sentidos, a gastronomic orgy at the Battersea Arts Centre? There used to be a shop near me called "But Is It Art?". I posed Neal the very same question.

"It's all theatre," she argues. "We wanted to challenge what theatre was and test the artform. The possibilities are limitless. We wanted to push and push and see how far we could go. We didn't want to be limited by space or site or venue or artist. We let go of the conventions of the play. But there is still an immediacy about all the shows. The audience is catching that moment which will never be lived again. At the heart of every show is a performance that is an engagement between artists and audience. Ideas and truths are communicated in the performance that have meaning for the people present. During the journey of the show, you're being offered transformation, the chance to re-examine your view of the world and things like child abuse (Go, Go, Go) or politics (Stunde Null). I'm happy to call that theatre."

But where's the sacred text and the proscenium arch in all this? We are, after all, the nation that gave the world Shakespeare. "We're trying to make a show for everyone," James contends. "You don't have to be an intellectual or know about Shakespeare to appreciate it. It's for a boy of 10 or an old man. If you're in a big storm in the middle of the sea, you have to say, `OK, I'm going to enjoy this.' You have no other choice. This is the same, emotional sensation."

Neal, too, has no wish to be penned inside a Shakespearean corral. "A lot of our view of the theatre is very Eurocentric," she maintains. "But London is the most culturally diverse city in the world. By being open to artists from around the world, we're able to see what variety there is without any one form dominating any others. We leave the boxes behind. If you want to climb into boxes and test the walls, that's fine. But our audiences want to breathe special air from different horizons."

There will inevitably be those who don't want to be inhaling any of that funny, foreign stuff. They will be left cold by LIFT and feel that these avowedly arty shows have nothing to say to them. Neal tries her best not to lose patience with such people. "If they want to keep up that argument, then fine," she says, almost through gritted teeth. "But I hope they'll see that there's something new, exciting and imaginative they can be enticed into here. I do think there's a possibility of changing people's lives through theatre. You can take away something that gives you another view. I don't think there's a single production in LIFT that's a load of self- indulgent crap"

De La Guarda's `Periodo Villa Villa' opens today at Three Mills Island Studio, London E3 (0171-312 1995) to 29 June