More tales of the unexpected

Simon McBurney has been surprising audiences for two decades, so directing French and Saunders' first show for 10 years is just par for the course. Marianne Brace meets a man who defies all labels
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On the worktop of Simon McBurney's kitchen sits a ham. It is the hind leg of a pig called Rillettes, which McBurney himself helped rear. It's all rather Lewis Carroll - like Alice meeting the mutton: "Alice - Mutton, Mutton - Alice." It doesn't seem quite good manners to carve someone you've been introduced to.

On the worktop of Simon McBurney's kitchen sits a ham. It is the hind leg of a pig called Rillettes, which McBurney himself helped rear. It's all rather Lewis Carroll - like Alice meeting the mutton: "Alice - Mutton, Mutton - Alice." It doesn't seem quite good manners to carve someone you've been introduced to.

McBurney's work as artistic director of Theatre de Complicite is full of such looking-glass moments. Winner of 26 international awards, the company's success can be measured by the difficulty you'll find when trying to get hold of tickets. Their performances sell out in a flash. The critics rave but struggle in their attempts to pigeonhole the company's output, which has ranged from Tim Barlow's army experiences to Juliet Stevenson as Grusha in The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

Encountering the farcical, magical and absurd, enlivened by expressionistic coups de théâtre, Complicite's audiences can expect to be surprised. At any moment, someone might stroll down a wall; a flock of flapping books may transmute into rare birds; in their new show Light, an actor plays a pig using two human femurs as his front trotters. "He is," says McBurney, "a distillation of what pigness is."

Light, now touring, is not the only project making demands on the director's attention. Early next year, another run of the hit Mnemonic is scheduled, and there will also be a performance of The Noise of Time. Revolving around Shostakovich's 15th Quartet, this work with the Emerson String Quartet premiered in New York last March. Soon, McBurney will play Eisenstein in the film The Furnace and he's just directed the French and Saunders live show.

The son of a don and brother of the composer Gerard McBurney, he remembers, as a small boy, doing plays written by his mother. At Cambridge University, McBurney acted in nine productions a year. "I did everything," he says. "I found it incomprehensible when I did Footlights that they sneered at people who were doing experimental theatre. But I found it equally incomprehensible that if you did experimental stuff, they would sneer at you for being interested in entertainment. I don't understand the difference between the two."

Desperate to escape England, he enrolled at l'Ecole Jacques Lecoq, the drama school in Paris whose other notable graduates include Dario Fo, Yasmina Reza ( Art), Julie Taymar ( The Lion King, Titus Andronicus) and Geoffrey Rush. "Most theatre in English is self-reverential," McBurney says. "People know what's on in London and the regions. But ask what's on in Germany, and nobody knows. It's very hermetic." In Paris, though, McBurney was able to see a huge range of productions from countries such as Germany, Spain and Sweden.

After graduating, McBurney, together with his fellow graduate Marcello Magni and associate Annabel Arden, formed Complicite. With their manic geeked-up look (heavy specs, greasy hair), the performers hit audiences with their skew-whiff vision of the world.

By their third year together, they had won the Perrier Award for comedy. McBurney shakes his head at the suggestion that the company has gradually become mainstream. "From the beginning it was incredibly mainstream. We performed 'More Bigger Snacks Now' on Wogan. It's been a descent into pretentiousness ever since," he says wryly.

It's why, too, McBurney resists labelling. "Originally, people called what we did 'alternative comedy'. Then it was 'physical comedy', then 'physical theatre'. All theatre is physical. I believe, very simply, that what you do on a stage is as important as what you say."

It was with Dürrenmatt's The Visit at the National Theatre nine years ago that Complicite seemed to register for most theatre-goers. It is the tale of a rich woman who offers a fortune to anyone who will kill the man who jilted her. The production was "very, very funny, but many of the critics at the time said we should have played it naturalistically to get the political message across". When they performed for Dürrenmatt's widow, she said it came closest to what her husband would have wanted. In every moment of horror, the audience was obliged to laugh.

With productions based on the work of John Berger, Pushkin, Bruno Schulz and now the Swedish novelist Torgny Lindgren ( Light), what kind of material does McBurney look for? Why Light? "It's extremely sardonic, and the humour comes out of a good deal of darkness." He muses: "It's got a lot of rabbits..."

In a time of plague, a man goes in search of love but returns to his village bringing death. "It refers to the coarseness in society. The difference between us and animals. That's always interested me."

His other show, Mnemonic, spins on memory and identity. Conceived by McBurney, it weaves together three stories: that of the 5,500-year-old ice man found frozen in the Italian Alps; one of a woman tracking her father through Eastern Europe; and another of a man coming west to embrace his future. One central figure tries to piece the fragments together.

McBurney was interested in whether consciousness is possible without memory. "I became fascinated by the way memory works and also how I connected with my own past." With an American father, a Native American great-grandmother and an Irish-Scottish mother, McBurney has always felt "culturally lost".

Complicite is a cultural melting-pot that melds actors from all over the world. The actor Antonio Gil Martinez couldn't speak a word of English before appearing in The Street of Crocodiles, in which he delivered his lines in his mother tongue. For McBurney it wasn't a problem. "When Antonio spoke in Spanish, everything was comprehensible because he performed in an extraordinarily exact way."

For the performers there are great physical demands. "In Light, Roger Lloyd Pack kills dozens of rabbits, chasing them across the landscape. You create a sense of power and speed through the way you perform it. It's a theatrical illusion." And the cast is kept on its toes. Last week, when Light played in Manchester, McBurney replaced three scenes that weren't working. "You have the luxury in performance of making things better." He's impatient with directors who sign off after opening night. "If I have a commitment to a piece of theatre, I'm there to the point when it can sustain itself. I'll probably make changes again."

Although Complicite is a broad church (no two casts or personnel are ever the same) there are threads which run through the work: moral choice in times of chaos and a strong ironic streak, for example. According to McBurney: "Comedy always seems more appropriate for our times than tragedy. There's a mistaken notion that comedy is light, more superficial. To me the opposite is true - tragedy always promotes the idea that we're dignified creatures whereas comedy reveals the absurd truth."

It was after appearing in The Vicar of Dibley that McBurney got to know Dawn French. She asked him to direct the first live French and Saunders show in 10 years - the first of their shows to have a director to shape sketches and give an overall coherence to the show. "The interesting thing is that the way they write feels familiar to the way I write. They sit down and start to play the character." McBurney even came up with the show's opening gag, a visual joke using a television. It's very Theatre de Complicite.

Jacques Lecoq once told McBurney: " Vous avez fait du théâtre dont moi je pouvais seulement rêver." (You've made theatre of which I could only dream). McBurney says: "Theatre is not a pure art. It steals from everybody. Anything that's to hand, I'll use in a piece of theatre." Telling the story is important; he's not hung-up on the means. "Often I hear a piece of music at a concert and will laugh, it might be because of a shifted key or a particular cadence." He laughs at music? "Yeah, frequently. Something that's unexpected will always make you laugh."

'Light' tours tomorrow to Sat, Theatre Royal, Plymouth; 11-14 Oct Dublin; 18-21 Oct Theatre Royal, Bath; and 27 Oct-18 Nov Almeida, London. French and Saunders play Sheffield tonight, and tour to 16 Dec

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