LA GRANDE ILLUSION

Marcel Marceau is the world's most famous mime artist. But mime has moved on. At 71, he now finds himself at war with the art form he helped to transform `Very often critics think what is old is passe. But we are not sure that the passe is not the future'
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HE SLUMPS in the sofa and asks a question. "Who in the 20th century has been world famous as a soloist in mime?"

"Who?"

"I ask you the question. Who?"

"You?"

"Absolutely. It is the truth. You spoke the truth. What I did as a one-man show throughout the world, no one can do again in the 20th century." (A beat.) "Maybe in the 21st. I don't know."

Marcel Marceau sits in a tiny room at the Marcel Marceau School of International Mime, near the Place de la Republique in Paris. He's 71 and wrapped in a sheepskin jacket. He looks androgynous, like an old crone: his fluffy grey hair crowning an ancient,expressive face. He says he can talk, but not for long. In fact, he can talk, and at great length. It's a slight disappointment to find he can talk at all.

He's gravelly, lyrical and emphatic. Very. He refers to himself in the third person, casually moving the conversation between Marcel Marceau and Picasso and Marcel Marceau and Chaplin (and Milton and Shakespeare and Blake and Coleridge and Moliere and, well, you get the idea). "I know what I am worth," he says. "If Marcel Marceau did not know what he was worth, he would be in trouble."

There is probably no other figure this century who has taken an art form and refashioned it so completely in their own image. Think mime and you think Marcel Marceau. It's a pre-eminence achieved through a life on the road. "I think I am the most travelled actor in the world," he says. "I did 300 performances a year for 30 years and that I didn't get crazy is very astonishing."

But times have changed and mimes today do whacky things. For instance, they talk (and argue this is closer to the true tradition of mime). Among the new, chattering class of mimes, multi-media presentation is in and Mar-ceau is out. The Macmillan series on theatre has one called Mime and Post-Modern Mime. In it, the author Thomas Leabhart argues that Marceau has "little to do with modern or post-modern mime".

Leabhart comes clean about this: Marceau is harder to write about than other leading figures such as Etienne Decroux, Jean-Louis Barrault or Jacques Lecoq. "The ephemeral nature of his work," he writes, "(mostly performing, less teaching and writing thanthe other three) . . ." You have to stop there: it's a wonderful bracket. Only an academic could summarise 300 performances a year for 30 years as "mostly performing, less teaching". The thing about all this performing that Marceau has been doing is that it "lends itself less well to critical analysis".

Marceau may have performed all over the world but he has not kept step with the march of critical theory. Leabhart consigns him - albeit respectfully - to a role as master of "a period art known as silent pantomime". But what if the dinosaur never becomes extinct? What if silent pantomime survives into the 21st century and post-modern theory withers?

Marceau is working hard to see that his art does survive. "There are political wars," he says, "You know this, and there are artistic wars too. Fortunately the artistic wars are peaceful, we don't kill one another."

What they do - Decroux, Lecoq, Marceau - is found schools, start companies and hand on le legs. In Marceau's case it's a two-pronged campaign: the Marcel Marceau International School of Mime and the Marcel Marceau Company.

This afternoon he is teaching at the school for six hours: two hours with the first year, two with the second, two with the third. He will be handing on the precise grammar of mime. With-out these technical skills he believes it is impossible to create illusion. And that is his business. "I make the illusion itself appear and disappear. Not the reality. The illusion, you see. I make disappear what is already not there. Voila!"

Two hundred students have been through the school. Nine of them are now members of the Marcel Marceau Company. It's this company that visits London for the first time this month. "An art," says Marceau, "cannot rely on the shoulders of one man."

PICK UP the glossy programme for the 17th London International Mime Festival (LIMF) and you will not find the slim, wiry shoulders of Marcel Marceau on the cover. (The shoulders on the cover belong to someone from a circus who is hanging upside down on arope.) You will find Marceau on pages 16 and 17, sandwiched between the People Show No 100, who perform in telephone boxes, trains and fields, and the Glee Club who fuse live action, animation, new music and film in a western yarn. These are st range bedfellows and Marceau isn't completely chuffed.

"I was in England," he says, as if he is remembering good years for wine, "in '52, '57, '60, '62, '65, '68, '70, '72, '75, '78, '82, '85, '89, '90. Imagine! And now," he adds, "we come only for three performances."

Three days at the Queen Elizabeth Hall is hardly four weeks at Sadler's Wells. "At the beginning I was a little sad, I must tell you, because I wanted to play at least 30 performances." The difference is not the place or the length of run, but the type of audience. "When we played in a regular theatre it was not spec-ially a mime audience who came. They came to see Marcel Marceau. But now it's a mime fest-ival. And of course, Marcel Marceau too."

This is a paradox about Marceau. He has done more than any other mime artist in bringing mime to the public. But he has devoted his life, also, to keeping mime a separate art, not simply one of a range of skills that actors can deploy in the theatre. He has, simultaneously, taken his art to the people and placed it in an ivory tower.

LIMF is billing the three evenings as a premiere . In the first half Marceau will perform solo pieces. This is, he explains, for the people "who have never seen Marceau - which can happen - young people. They can see the roots of Marceau." This section includes his most famous character, Bip, a modern Pierrot. A white-faced clown with a striped T-shirt and white jacket, Bip's distinctive make-up is described by Marceau as a "mouth torn by a red dash, circumflexes over his eyes".

Bip takes his name from Pip in Great Expectations and his quixotic adventures include "Bip as a Soldier", "Bip as a China Salesman", "Bip at a Society Party". In "Bip Hunts Butterflies", for instance, Marceau's trembling hands create the wings of the butterfly and the tremors of the heart. When the butterfly escapes, love fades. Marceau first performed Bip in 1947, the year Chaplin released Monsieur Verdoux. With Marceau you sense it is not the pieces that are in need of renewal but the audiences.

The second half of the programme is Mar-ceau's adaptation of Gogol's The Overcoat. As an adaptation it does not follow the original too slavishly because Marceau did not read the original. "A Russian told it to me." When he read it years later, he was glad it was for the first time. "It would have been very difficult to adapt. It was very different, but the essence was there."

The Overcoat, the most famous of the 26 "mimodramas" that Marceau has created, is the story of a Russian clerk who works overtime for 10 years to buy a cloak (only to have it stolen). "Very romantic. Very romantic." It was first performed in 1951 (the year of The African Queen). But because it is the first time Marceau's company has performed The Overcoat in London, LIMF is calling it a "premiere" .

The Festival organisers did ask for something more recent. "They asked for there to be everything new," says Marceau, but he wouldn't comply. "No. Everything new does not mean better." He is not a self-conscious experimenter with form, but he does do newwork. (Two new mimodramas, both period pieces, are planned, the first for 1996. One is about an Englishman who wants to get rid of the bowler hat he has had for 12 years but finds it impossible to do so; the other is about a Neapolitan immigrant arriving in New York who believes that every American is a millionaire.) These stories have never been performed before but they sound as if they might well have been. "New" is not a buzzword for Marceau.

"Nothing is completely new. We are the continuation of culture. England does not deny the great Lake poets or Milton. No. Very often critics, who are not inormed sometimes, think what is old is passe. But we are not sure that the passe is not stronger than the future. We can fall down completely if we cut the roots of the past."

Marceau quotes the moment from City Lights when the girl recognises Chaplin as the man who gave her the flowers. "He knows he can have no future with this girl because he is a bum. It's not sentimental. It's strong. How can you deny the sensibility of Romanticism?" Marceau traces this sensibility back to the Renaissance. "If the Renaissance had not existed, maybe commedia dell'arte would not have existed. Maybe Pierrot would not have existed. Maybe Chaplin would not have existed. And maybe Marceau wouldnot have existed."

MARCEL MANGEL was born in 1923 in Strasbourg, the son of a kosher butcher. His family then moved to Lille and Limoges. As a child he read Great Expectations, watched Chaplin in The Circus ("To us, he was a god. As a boy I sat entranced in motion-picture houses") and performed at his aunt's summer camp, wearing baggy trousers and a painted moustache.

His father was killed in Auschwitz in 1944. Marcel worked for the French Resistance, helping children across the Alps and forging identity cards so that people would be too young to be sent to labour camps. In 1944 he went to Paris using a false identity(Marceau) and enrolled at Charles Dullin's theatre school in Paris. He wanted to be an actor. At the school he took classes with the leading mime of the day, Decroux ("my master"). Decroux taught Marceau the role of the harlequin and told him that he was "a born mime". After that, Marceau gave up learning lines.

In 1944 Marcel Carne's classic film Les Enfants du Paradis appeared, in which Jean-Louis Barrault plays the actor Deburau, who in turn plays the mime, Baptiste - a Pierrot character rooted firmly in the tradition of commedia dell'arte. Barrault's huge success showed Mar-ceau that you could go back to the 19th century for inspiration and the audiences would follow. The next year Barrault performed on stage the mime he had performed in Les Enfants du Paradis. Marceau joined his company while working on hi s own pieces. Marceau took the grammar that he had learnt from Decroux, the lyricism of Baptiste, and the little-man humour and pathos he had studied in Chaplin. Out of this mix came Bip.

The simplicity of this lonely, poetic figure - sniffing flowers, catching butterflies, struggling with buttons - was a perfect antidote for European audiences to the aftermath of the war. Marceau toured Europe for eight years, but his major break came in1955 when he went to America. "They had never seen a man walking in the wind without wind. They had never seen a man going upstairs and downstairs without stairs. Or a man on a tightrope 10ft high walking on the floor." His two-week run at the Phoenix Theater, New York, was extended; then he moved first to the Ethel Barrymore Theater and later to City Center. The run lasted six months. He was on TV. He was everywhere. Marceau and mime became linked in the public mind, as inseparable as Laurel and Hardy.

"YOU WILL see that they know nothing," says Marceau, when the interview ends. He is going to teach the first year character conventions: pity, anger, joy, etc. It's not quite as rigid as it sounds. "After they have learnt the conventions, they make interpretations. They change it. I'll give an example. I show anger doing . . ." (He does the angry gesture.) "That does not mean that in a mimodrama when they are angry they will do . . ." (He repeats the gesture.) "But learning to do this . . ." (He gestures again.) "Will give them the potential to interpret. You see we have to combine style and form."

He takes off his sheepskin jacket and suddenly looks much smaller. On the stage he moves among the pupils (50 years younger than him) telling anecdotes, demonstrating gestures, watching and repeating, again and again. A habitual performer, whenever Marceau speaks he faces out front (even if more pupils are standing behind him). He quotes Chaplin so frequently you imagine he had dinner with him last night. Here he is handing on "heritage" .

The first class look as if they will never make it as mimes. There is no illusion there. All you see is a group of strained, self-conscious faces. The student can only bring "his personality", says Marceau, "which is blocked. He can only make a film inside his head." Marceau keeps repeating the phrase "exterieur avec interieur!"

When the second year arrive the balance shifts: more illusion, less self-consciousness. Exterior and interior begin to meet. They move better too: thanks to other classes in acrobatics, modern and classical dance. By the end of the afternoon, when the third year arrive, illusion has taken over. The third year work on their own mimodramas and many of their problems are ones that are shared by any narrative art: logic, economy, motivation.

Marceau keeps suggesting details. One student has a moment when he is shaving. His hand mimes the shaving brush crossing his face. That's all. Marceau takes over. Suddenly there is a washbowl. His fingers are testing the temperature of the water. There is too much foam on the shaving brush. The brush wobbles with the foam. Then there is too much foam on his face. Some of it gets in his eyes. He wipes his eyes. Then he flicks foam at the mirror. He likes that. He flicks more and more foam until the brush turns into a sword and he is duelling with his reflection in the mirror. Great diagonal strokes of foam, up and down, as he advances and retreats.

Back in his seat Marceau watches, commenting in a mixture of French and English (it's an international school): "C'est trop complique! . . . Pensez comme un comedien mais jouez comme un mime . . . exterieur avec interieur! . . . No, you go too quick! That is good, but simple, simple . . . Voila, yes! . . . The difficulty is that when you want to make magic with the invisible you have to be visible . . . Why is it good? It has motivation. As long as it does not have motivation, it cannot work . . . Don'tcomplicate it! . . . Trop vite! . . . plus lentement! . . . continuez! . . . voila! . . . voila! . . . voila! . . . C'est bien!"

!Queen Elizabeth Hall, SE1 (071-928 8800), 20-22 Jan, 7.45pm. Marceau talks about his work on 22 Jan at 4pm at the South Bank Centre (admission free).

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