Mime: Not even a script could save us now

WOYZECK PURCELL ROOM SOUTH BANK CENTRE LONDON

BILLED AS "a free adaptation", Josef Nadj's version of Woyzeck, which launches this year's London International Mime Festival, is so free as to render Buchner's seminal play almost unrecognisable. Nadj and his company - Le Centre Choreographique National d'Orleans - display an oblique fidelity towards the work's unhinged, absurdist spirit while banishing every letter of the text, apart from a croaked whisper of the misfortunate protagonist's name. The result is an astonishing series of feverishly intense images that refuses to cohere into an interpretable narrative.

You could argue that the beauty of Buchner's original is that it plays fast and loose with sense. Every production of it is necessarily partial, given that the playwright left behind four incomplete versions, scrawled between 1836 and 1837, at the time of his death from typhus at the age of 23. Moreover, in the untrammelled rumination and wayward sentiment crammed into the brief, extant scenes, lie the ambiguities that have helped sustain Buchner's posthumously established critical reputation.

But even the slightest certainties of story and character have been eradicated here. If you were guided by the programme notes alone, you wouldn't even know the gist: that Woyzeck is a poor military barber who, prompted by a jealous heart and despairing existential visions (possibly induced by being on a forced diet of peas), stabs to death his common-law wife, Marie - seen consorting with a drum-major.

The seven performers, including Nadj, do not take named parts; instead, they form a kind of avant - garde collective bound together by an outlandish, clay-spattered dress code (blue face-paint preferable) and lunatic behaviour.

There is one female player, who is the focus of sexually suggestive and threatening attention; but as to whether she dies, it's hard to say - at the end of 60 minutes, she is carried off, still sitting on a chair.

At the start, the statuesque forms ranged across the rustic interior, which centres on a rickety table and chairs and is overarched by dangling contraptions, thaw into life, to the cracked recording of a cymbalon. In one corner, a hunchback chisels a block of wood; at the back, sits a bound and hooded body; from nowhere there rises up a grotesque creature in a massively padded white outfit who bears an unfortunate resemblance to the Michelin Man but who is, more likely, an abstract embodiment of the play's sinister doctor.

The clownish interactions that ensue, although conducted with a magnificently precise physicality, smack heavily of padded material themselves. At their best, such as during the deafening automaton drumming of sticks on wood, they communicate the original's interest in the way humans can be viewed as inanimate objects, at the mercy of their surroundings and nature. At their worst, the routines have an homogenising effect: even the stabbings come with visual gags (bits of intestine are skewered out for our sqeamish pleasure). There will be those for whom such brilliantly realised coups de theatre are enough, but the lack of direction left me with a serious case of road rage.

To Tues, RFH (0171-960 4242). Mime festival continues to 24 Jan (0171- 637 5661)

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