Say it with feathers, rags and bits of lace

Sarah Hemming applauds the variety of visual theatre at the London Inte rnational Mime Festival
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The Independent Culture
After half an hour of very noisy performance, David, one half of the Umbilical Brothers, turned to the audience with an apologetic shrug. "Nineties mime," he said. "With sound."

It's true. These days the London International Mime Festival is very much all things to all men: sound is acceptable, speech is acceptable, even charging up and down the theatre aisles making noises like a horse (an Umbilical Brothers speciality) is acceptable. Mime comes into it, of course, (Marcel Marceau was back this year) but the focus is on international performers with a visual bent.

The festival kicked off, however, with a group of performers who have no choice but to be silent: puppets. We have a very limited tradition of puppet drama in Britain - Sooty and Sweep, Punch and Judy, Rod Hull and Emu - but elsewhere they play a far more serious role. Sweden's Marionetteatern brought us a mesmerising performance of Strindberg's Ghost Sonata.

In this production, Strindberg's disturbing, dream-like world of souls in limbo is performed partly by humans - funeral masters of ceremony who are themselves fairly alarming - and partly by malevolent looking little puppets. Neither cute, like glove puppets, nor grotesque, these little mannequins are more like highly articulated dolls. No effort goes into disguising the fact that they are moved by human hands (there are no rods or strings), but they move so convincingly that you soon find yourself believing in these strange little figures. Add to this an altar-like back piece, flickering candlelight and a disturbing, throbbing soundtrack and the whole thing takes on the feeling of a sinister ritual.

Ilke Schonbein, of Germany's Theatre Meschugge, also combines performance with puppetry to astonishing effect. Using no words, Schonbein winds her way through a series of characters and animals to a background of soulful Eastern European music, employingjust rags, feathers, bits of lace and scabby old umbrellas to transform herself. One minute she is a vicious old beggar woman, tyrannising the audience, the next she is a bizarre old rat in a fur coat. A flick of the wrist and she is fighting off a giant crow. Her performance is remarkable for its rough humour and its simplicity, but also for its coherence. Her parade of creatures takes us through a cycle of decay and renewal, so that when she finally thrusts her hands into a pair of gloves adorned wit h a few white feathers, not only does the audience recognise that this is a dove, but that, in the world Schonbein has created, it is also the soul.

Another thoroughly engaging performer is Yoshi Oida, who offered us Interrogations. Placing himself in the position of a Zen Master, he posed us enigmatic questions about the meaning of life ("A man climbs to the top of a 50m pole. How can he go further?"). Then, when we had done contorting ourselves trying to come up with the answers, he offered a response to the question through movement. I am not sure anyone emerged any the wiser as to the meaning of life, but we did emerge with a feeling for the meaning of theatre. This sort of thing could be infuriating in the wrong hands, but the charm, intelligence and warmth of Oida's performance created a remarkable harmony between audience and performer.

And while Oida dealt with the long and painful search for enlightenment, the Umbilical Brothers went to the other extreme with a show that is a wonderful testimony to a misspent youth. This Australian double act have never really grown up - they are still doing kung fu fighting, having duels and blowing their noses over one another - but they turn these playground conflicts into an exuberant and skilful show. Nineties Mime. With sound.

n See listings for details

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