When Martin Bragg, artistic director of Canada's largest theatre company CanStage, was first approached with the idea of staging an adaptation of two Gogol short stories he was initially sceptical. "I hate negative theatre," he says. "I thought these two stories had the potential to be unbelievably depressing." He was even more doubtful when the directors added that they wanted to stage it without words. "I couldn't see how a North American audience could find it accessible." North America proved him wrong. Six years later CanStage have that most unusual theatrical contradiction on their hands: a mime blockbuster. Fusing the stories of The Overcoat and Diary of a Madman, and featuring only the music of Shostakovich and a cast of 22, The Overcoat has sold out across Canada and has since been made into an award winning film.
The Overcoat comes to London this month as part of the 26th London International Mime Festival - now one of the biggest festivals of its kind - and tellingly, is the largest production the festival has ever featured. Its proven popular appeal also neatly undermines the annual conversation on mime's perceived image problem in this country that trails the LIMF with a depressing monotony. Every year the organisers ready themselves for the inevitable question regarding the prejudice of white gloves and invisible walls that surround the name (even Jacques Lecoq wrote in his book The Moving Body that he was forbidden from using the word mime at the Theatre National Populaire in Paris in 1956). Each year they let the programme do the talking. This year this ranges from the extravagant spectacle of The Overcoat to Theatre 2.0's Breathe, which features no actors and no plot, via a raft of work from British and international artists. All are as much in debt to silent cinema (The Overcoat is heavily influenced by the work of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton) music, dance and circus as they are to the Greek root of mime, meaning "to imitate life".
Helen Lannaghan, co-founder and co-artistic director of LIMF, points out that despite Britain's ingrained cultural resistance to non verbal theatre (we have Shakespeare to thank for that), London is the perfect place for a mime festival. "This type of theatre doesn't depend on an audience who speak English as their first language," she says. "Perform something that uses just movement and music to tell its story before an audience as multicultural as London's, and it blows the roof off." Yet the fact that LIMF is now firmly established in the capital - its average attendance has been a stable 85 percent for the last five years - is itself testament to the growing shift in the receptivity of British artists and audiences to the genre's physical and visual vocabulary. Andrew Dawson, director of Pandora 88 by the Potsdam company Fabrik, which plays at The Purcell Room during the festival, points out that this vocabulary actually entered the mainstream as far back as 1987, when his mime-influenced production, Thunderbirds FAB, played to packed houses in the West End, and has continued with the ongoing success of Julie Taymor's The Lion King. "An image can say a million things a word can't," he says. "Words are traps. Images are liberating."
Take away language and you take away social difference, and with it open up the possibility for something with phenomenal cross over appeal. By the same token, the focus on the silent image over the spoken word can also produce an particular emotional resonance that can far outstrips the artist's original intention to uniquely powerful effect. "Fabrik's previous production Fallen, for example, which explored loss and the art of flight, and which featured falling bodies, took on an extraordinary dimension in the aftermath of September 11," says Dawson. "But the show had been conceived many months before."
Nevertheless, mime's detractors would argue that in removing language from a piece, you also remove its ability to reflect the contemporary world with the same sense of urgent debate as a conventional play. Contemporary text based theatre, for example, has been notable of late for its response to recent events in world history. The sensory vacuum that most visual and physical theatre inhabits, and its abstract emotional appeal, means it runs the risk of slipping down an intellectual black hole. But Fabrik overturn this prejudice with Pandora 88, in which the German dancers Wolfgang Hoffman and Sven Till remain stuck in a box throughout: the starting point was Brian Keenan's Beirut hostage memoirs, and the results are a deeply engaging meditation on the politics of confinement. Another Fabrik piece, Petrified Skin, featured two men constantly knocking down and rebuilding a wall, and was specifically about the social and emotional ramifications of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Walls, absent or otherwise, tend to feature heavily in Fabrik's work, something Dawson agrees could be a metaphorical response to eastern Europe's long tradition of censorship.
The growth of festivals such as LIMF, LIFT (the London International Festival of Theatre) and BITE (the Barbican International Theatre Event) - all dedicated to bringing international theatre to London - means that British artists are increasingly able to engage with the work of their European counterparts, many of whom have a much stronger tradition in non verbal theatre practices such as puppetry and circus than we do. The half Irish, half Italian artist Sean Gandini, co founder of Gandini Juggling, is now regarded as one of the greatest jugglers in the world and with the choreographer Gill Clarke, from the Siobhan Davies dance company, has established an artform that fuses the mathematical precision of juggling with the ethereal grace of modern dance. Intriguingly, he compares the rhythmic patterns and spatial symbols of his juggling with the abstract, tessellated patterns of Islamic art. "I am fascinated by visual geometry," he says.
By that token, these same festivals mean that British artists are also coming to the attention of international artistic directors like never before. The UK company Spymonkey, for example, was given a two year contract with Cirque du Soleil on the back of their appearance at LIMF last year. But one can argue the perceived need for mime to keep justifying its existence on paper as much as one wants. At the end of the day the most important thing is the work. Lannaghan, Dawson, Gandini and Bragg are all adamant that the crucial and uniquely special strength of their work is the magical emotional connection it makes with the audience. For Bragg, his personal turning point came during the auditions for The Overcoat. "We asked normal actors to tell a story without words to a piece of music of their choice. Many couldn't do it. Those who could produced something in me I had never felt before." For Lannaghan the point about physical and visual theatre is that it goes beyond words itself. "The best work inhabits a space where language does not belong." Yet it is Bragg who is also the most down to earth. Asked what he would say to the general British public who might be doubtful about seeing a production in mime, and his response is refreshing. "Tell them they should buy a ticket as soon as possible, because there won't be many left."
LIMF runs at the Royal Festival Hall, ICA, Barbican, BAC, The Albany and the Croydon Clocktower, 10-25 January. 'The Overcoat' is at the Barbican, London EC2 (0845-120 7553), 20-24 JanuaryReuse content