Harlekin, Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London


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The Independent Culture

Harlequin is traditionally an agile comic character, fast and acrobatic. Russian theatre troupe Derevo have no shortage of physical skill, but it’s stretched out to painful slowness.

The three shaven-headed clowns tell tragic-comic stories with such arch emphasis that even the gory bits look mannered.

Founded by lead performer Anton Adassinsky in 1988, Derevo established themselves as darlings of the Edinburgh Fringe, regularly winning awards at the festival. They come to London as part of the London International Mime Festival, performing in the Linbury rather than the often ad hoc venues of Edinburgh.

A padded, false-bearded showman prods the audience as we come in, running around the theatre and speaking to the crowd. The stage is hidden by a curtain, mended in diamond patterns that suggest the patched origins of the traditional harlequin costume. When the show starts, we see dancers moving in shadow, a tutu’d woman in a tall hat and a man with a sword. As they dance, their shadows grow and shrink, looming over each other until he kills her and them himself. It’s cleverly staged, simple and effective.

In front of the curtain, they stage long, yearning scenes. Adassinsky makes eyes at the oblivious Elena Yarovaya. He keeps taking off her hat, making her scream each time. Standing in two window frames, they wave or hold conversations in mime. When one throws something, it reappears in the other’s window – but the timing isn’t quite sharp enough, blurring the joke.

Some of the imagery is gruesome. Adassinsky seems to pull a scarlet pepper out of his own bloody chest; Yarovaya thoughtfully bites into it. We see other pepper-hearts in spotlights, each framed by a crown. Yarovaya returns as a nurse, stitching up Adassinsky’s chest, with much squirting of blood and syringes. I like the moment when Yarovaya realises she’s lost her scissors and has to bite off the thread, but the scene is overextended.

The show touches on the harlequin’s long and varied history, from commedia dell’arte to the Ballets Russes retelling of Petrushka. The references are deft, but Derevo’s own harlequinade doesn’t come to life. The knowing performance style works best in a sequence for a hurdy-gurdyist and his monkey. Adassinsky keeps prodding Yarovaya to turn for the audience; they cut between false smiles for their public, and seething resentment to each other.

Until 19 January. London International Mime Festival continues until 27 January. www.mimelondon.co.uk