The audience dies laughing

Complicite marks turning 21 with the revival of its 'clown show' about death
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The Independent Culture

January began with a gong for Simon McBurney, head of the innovative theatre company Complicite, but he's ambivalent about his OBE. "My initial instinct was to turn it down," he says, "but the company was keen for me to accept. If Ben Okri can accept his, so can I."

January began with a gong for Simon McBurney, head of the innovative theatre company Complicite, but he's ambivalent about his OBE. "My initial instinct was to turn it down," he says, "but the company was keen for me to accept. If Ben Okri can accept his, so can I."

Set up in 1983, Complicite began with improvised comedy and ended up transforming British drama with a brand of total theatre that used words, simple props, movement, mime and music to engage all the senses.

The company is celebrating its 21st birthday by reviving A Minute Too Late, a "clown show" about death. "It originally grew out of four days of improvisation at the Royal College of Art," says McBurney, 47. "We found ourselves making students roar with laughter from day one." Reviving it with the same cast "excited our curiosity enormously. The piece began with the death of my father. Since then, my mother has died, my brother-in-law has died, and my best friend [the actress Katrin Cartlidge] has died, so we asked the same questions once again: why do we have no words in the face of death? Why have its rituals become meaningless?"

McBurney is fascinated by the social awkwardness caused by death. People find "displays of emotion extremely embarrassing. When my father died, people crossed the street rather than talk to me, because they didn't know what to say. And they would use the most extraordinary synonyms: 'pass away' or 'go to sleep'."

At the core of A Minute Too Late is a "very simple idea: that your death is your own and nobody else's. Dying can be known only when you experience it. If you haven't experienced anyone dying, you can't explain what it's like. So when it happens to you, you think about it a lot. You imagine your own death. Every mention of death is heightened for you. Plus, you have a whole series of administrative problems. As my father said when he was dying, 'I didn't realise death was so complicated.'"

In A Minute Too Late, the trio repeat clichés about death until they become meaningless. The effect is comic: "Tragedy is always held to be deep, while comedy is light, artificial and escapist," McBurney says. "But the opposite is true: tra-gedy is pernicious because it main-tains the myth that we are dignified, while comedy reveals the absurd truth, which is why we hate being laughed at in real life. The aim of our play is partly satirical. Then we shift gears: now you laugh; now you don't."

Complicite's hallmark is the exploration of our humanity through experimentation with theatrical devices, from comic mime to back projections, so as to wake up the audience's imagination. McBurney gives it a political spin: "The audience's act of collective imagination reminds us that, in contrast to current political thinking, we are not individuals. Our sense of living in our own bubble is disproved the moment we sit in the theatre and collectively believe an actor when they say that a glass of water is the sea.

"The OBE", he continues, "honours an act of resistance that grew out of our rediscovery of the revolutionary ideas of previous decades, whereby you create collectively by devising a piece from scratch in rehearsal. I look at the world rather than at other theatre people. And I just do what I do."

'A Minute Too Late', National Theatre Lyttelton, London SE1 (020-7452 3000) tomorrow to 26 Feburary

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