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)

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