THEATRE / THE FRINGE: Breaking the sound barrier: Sarah Hemming on the International Mime Festival

Scientists debating the origins of the universe need look no further. The secret is now being revealed in Lavender Hill, south London: it was all done with torches.

In Popol Vuh at BAC, Battersea, the Brazilian theatre group Teatro de Arte Popular presents a gods'-eye view of creation as part of the London International Mime Festival. The show, which takes its name from the bible of the ancient Maya civilisation, outlines the struggles of the Spirits of the Sky to create humanity - a task they undertake in this version using only a couple of household torches to transmit the divine spark.

The production suggests a primitive universe by having you peer through the gloom on to a dimly lit stage, occasionally pierced by flashes of light or blasts of cloud and peopled by strange oozing shapes. Through this uncertain darkness wander the Mother and Father of Creation, agitating their torches wildly as they try to beam life into the nothingness. It's a surprisingly atmospheric and effective production, which establishes a lonely, eerie world and portrays creation as hard and sticky work. The Spirits have several shots at mankind before they strike lucky - their most disturbing attempts being 'clay man', represented here by two writhing figures in sacks whom no amount of torchlight can release from heaviness, and 'corn man', a violent being, ingeniously plastered with cornflakes (potentially the first cereal killer?). The main criticism of this 'performance-installation' would be that it never varies pace, but otherwise it handles an interesting subject in a powerful way. Popol Vuh is the only show that I have seen so far at this year's Mime Festival that is genuinely silent - well, at least non-verbal (it has a continuous soundtrack). But then the Mime Festival is no longer strictly about mime: it is described in the brochure as 'a showcase for innovative physical and visual theatre', a remit that makes for a healthy variety among the 20-odd shows in this year's three-week festival. Yet what was noticeable about the first week's batch was how imprecisely some of the pieces communicated, and how poorly they were paced.

The prime culprit was Tag Teatro, from Venice, a festival highlight in previous years. Tag's reputation is based on its use of commedia dell'arte - the company stages traditional comedies with the flourish, physicality and improvisation with which they might originally have been performed. This year's show, La Zincana ('The Gypsy Woman') at the Purcell Room, is a typically daft story about a gypsy woman who swaps her baby for a nobleman's. By way of prologue the company performs a high-speed version - it's funny, witty and lasts about five minutes. So far, so good. They then plod through the show proper for two very long hours.

The characters are unengaging, the slapstick uninspired, and the story is relayed by everybody shouting, the only physical aspect of the delivery being that they wave their arms about a lot. In the absence of visual diversions, boredom soon sets in if you cannot understand the Italian dialogue - a quarter of the audience voted with their feet the night I was there. Tag has much to offer, but not in this piece, and it is a sorry story when one of the highlights of the mime festival is marred by a language barrier.

There was more enjoyment to be had from two companies who played with the idea of trying to stage a classic. The French group Cartoon Sardines, at the French Institute last Wednesday, offered a sophisticated and irreverent version of Le Malade Imaginaire set in a circus ring. Argan is a clown marooned centre-stage, visited by the other characters in increasingly fanciful costumes. Though the production spirals into the ridiculous, it keeps faith with Moliere's bitter comedy.

From Czechoslovakia, meanwhile, the Bolek Polivka Company gave us Don Quixote at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Saturday, supposedly performed as therapy by a group from a drying-out clinic. Here, under the increasingly demented guidance of the clinic director, two of the 'patients' attempt to stage the play, displaying no understanding whatsoever of the rules of theatre.

The beauty of the show lies in the performers' timing and sense of the ridiculous: the production starts with small gags and becomes increasingly absurd. Yet it also retains some of the pathos of the original. Quixote's death scene is moving because, despite all their shenanigans, the stringy Quixote (Bolek Polivka) and stodgy Sancho Panza (Luk D'Heu) have built up a relationship. It is a bit of a long joke and not much is made of the basic premise, but the show is performed with such warmth that it is very hard to dislike; it is also a treat to watch Polivka, one of those performers who only has to walk on stage to get a laugh.

Yet, however intriguing the setting, however adept the physicality and however absurd the comedy of visual theatre, there often comes a point when the novelty wears off and you long for the subtlety of verbal expression. For me, Insomniac Productions never crossed the 'what next?' threshold with L'Ascensore - an ingenious and beautifully executed piece of theatre that matches style to content by placing its action in a lift.

The show, which ran until Sunday at the ICA, focuses on Salvatore, a small- time mafioso operating in New York, who is ambushed in a hotel elevator by his two- timing girlfriend. As he dies from his knife wounds, the lift descends repeatedly to the basement, taking him back to episodes of his circumscribed and violent life: each time the doors open we witness another scene.

One of the joys about this show is that it is done so well technically. The lift itself is a solid Art Deco structure, whose iron gates shut with a clang. Brooks and MacDonald contrast this small naturalistic space with the mysteriously changing, dreamlike distant scenes beyond the gates, using the perspective to create a clash of filmic and theatrical styles. It is also beautifully choreographed and makes fine use of a chorus of widows to create a nightmarish portrayal of the last few hours of life. From the creation of life to the descent into hell - the Mime Festival certainly has breadth.

'Popol Vuh' ends tonight, BAC, London SW11 (071-223 2223). The LIMF continues to 3 Feb (071-637 5661).

(Photograph omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor