'Nothing stays still, each show must change'

Complicite push theatre to its artistic limits. Mark Espiner talks to director Simon McBurney about storytelling, tight budgets and Arsÿne Wenger
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The Independent Culture

The lights go down in Theatre Clwyd in North Wales. The audience, many of whom have had to travel far to this remote place, is a broad church - young, old, left-field, small-c conservative - but all expectant.

The lights go down in Theatre Clwyd in North Wales. The audience, many of whom have had to travel far to this remote place, is a broad church - young, old, left-field, small-c conservative - but all expectant.

A man takes the spotlight in a smart black suit. He holds a microphone in one hand and cradles a rabbit in the other. In the mode of a stand-up comic, he starts to tell us a story. As he talks, actors fill the stage behind him, manipulating child-size puppets, pulling focus on the narrative as the stage dissolves into another world. The puppets are discarded and the actors take on their characters as the tale unfolds like a series of woodcuts.

The story is Light, Complicite's new show, directed by its co-founder Simon McBurney. It is his adaptation of Swedish writer Torgny Lindgren's novel of the same name and is on tour before opening in London later this month.

Leaving the theatre, McBurney indicates that the piece is far from finished. "It's a start," he says. Talking to him on the train back to London, he elaborates on the point and reveals some of his process. "For me," he comments, "I am unable to look at my own work until it is really close to completion - and that is a long way down the line. I take whole scenes out and put in new ones; I am always projecting through it, thinking what I can replace, what I can remake."

For Complicite, and McBurney in particular, change is crucial. Within the performance itself, through the life of the piece and particularly from one piece of work to the next, things must always be on the move, always changing. The company itself has changed its name. Until recently it was Théâtre de Complicité, now simply Complicite as it looks forward to new work.

Light is a marker in the history of the company as to just how rapid and progressive that change has been. This dark fable with its disturbing themes, black humour and deep irony is a world away from their 1985 Edinburgh and Perrier Award-winning hit comedy, More Bigger Snacks Now.

But it was through comedy that Complicite's founder members McBurney, Annabel Arden and Marcello Magni attacked and have arguably changed the way British theatre is perceived. Inspired by the teachings of Monika Pagneux and mime teacher and commedia dell'arte expert Jacques Lecoq in Paris, they set aside the conventional text-based approach to theatre and devised their own shows through an intense rehearsal and workshop process, which has become integral to the way they create. They concentrated on what the human body alone can achieve on stage. How gesture can stimulate an audience to imagine. And, most importantly, they sought to find a complicity between actors and audience. They named the company after the ideal.

The theatre establishment embraced their avant garde approach: in 1992 the RNT co-produced the now celebrated work The Street of Crocodiles, an adaptation of the writings of Bruno Schulz. That show attracted the attention of John Berger, now one of McBurney's closest collaborators.

The Street of Crocodiles, Berger explains, changed his idea of what theatre could be. It was, he says, a theatre which was what literature was about. "So often with theatre you have the feeling that the show is the prisoner of the text. With Complicite you don't have that feeling even when they are following a written text (as opposed to inventing one). You have the feeling that the text has arrived that night."

McBurney has been the artistic director of the company since that production, and it is his creative vision that has since taken centre stage under the Complicite banner.

His thirst for change has seen a radical departure in his most recent productions: Mnemonic, an epic and multi-stranded story about the act of memory, how we relate to our ancestors and how we imagine and remember our past; and The Noise of Time, an acoustic and visual poem that was a hymn to the composer Shostakovich, made in close collaboration with McBurney's brother, Gerard, a composer and Shostakovich expert.

Like The Street of Crocodiles, these pieces have shifted the emphasis of what theatre can be: how it can communicate complicated human experiences by marrying new technologies - such as sophisticated sound design and video projections - with the company's roots in gestural theatre, to find a form for their expression.

McBurney insists these new elements in his work are simply extensions for his storytelling. "Theatre is an extremely unholy art form," he says. "It is a magpie, it steals from anybody and everyone. It's always been on the fringes and it has frequently been called immoral. Any technology is simply another storytelling tool. I attach no meaning to my use of technology except that I wish to tell a story."

Whether he stays working with theatre is a moot point. He is tired of the constant battle for money. Complicite's producer, Judith Dimant, echoes his thoughts, saying that with what funding the company receives (£170,000 from the Arts Council and £39,000 from the London Arts Board) they can't afford to work here any more, and that she is constantly having to compromise his artistic vision by saying no to his ideas because of lack of cash. Dimant is going to encourage him to work in film.

Nevertheless, he always strives to captivate with his storytelling before a live audience. "Stories are probably only told to give people a sense of wonder," he says, quoting a character from Light. "If you can take advantage of this sense of wonder, you raise an audience up ... I love constructing the beginning of a show," he says, "because you have what I call 'grace time' when the audience is ready to accept almost anything, because they are in a theatre, the lights are going down and they are tremendously open and delighted to be there."

The world he opens up for the audience in Light, with its stripped-down characters, is an almost elemental one. It confronts what he calls the "raw rock" of what lies at the core of this story: the complexity of morality and the philosophical questions of what actually constitutes the differences between a man and an animal.

With Light he has not stopped moving, but shifted to a more visceral theatre which McBurney clearly relishes. He turns to football to illustrate his point. "Arsÿne Wenger has this great phrase 'circulation de balon' which basically means the distribution of the ball. And that is the way I want to make theatre. To keep it moving, to pass from one person to another ... Everything is possible," he says, "but it is a question of nothing staying still. Every show must change and take a new direction and everything must point towards the future." He pauses. "I always want people to come to the shows and see a sense of possibility" he says, and then adds, "as well as a sense of wonder."

* 'Light': Theatre Royal, Plymouth (01752 267222), Thurs to Sat; O'Reilly Theatre, Dublin (00 353 1 677 8439), 11-14 Oct; Theatre Royal, Bath (01225 448844), 18-21 Oct; Almeida, N1 (020 7359 4404), 27 Oct-18 Nov