In Praise of Hairiness, Barbican Pit, London

Old-style circus skills are gloriously subverted in this life-affirming one-woman show
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Here's one you may not have heard before. A bearded lady walked into a bar ... and noted the reactions of strangers. Women, she observed, were largely repelled by the gingerish fuzz sprouting from her jawline, while men, of those that weren't aggressively rude about it, seemed intrigued, attracted, even in some cases powerfully turned on by the idea of an otherwise feminine-looking female with extra hair.

Eloge du poil ("In Praise of Hairiness"), is a one-woman show by French-born Jeanne Mordoj and a real find, typical of London International Mime Festival's commitment to the unexpected. Strictly, though, its title is a red herring, because once the initial shock of it has passed, Mordoj's hairy chin seems no more remarkable than the headscarves she dons from time to time, or the cut of her dress. Gender politics certainly inform the material in the show, but they don't take a sledgehammer to it.

What Mordoj is really celebrating in the course of a fly-by 65 minutes in the Barbican Pit is her own off-piste philosophy of inanimate objects. It's this that prompts her to crack open an egg and send the unprotected yolk on a sliding journey up her bare arm to her shoulder, across her breastbone and down the other arm, "to give the unborn and never-to-be-born a taste of life".

If the beard does have an active function, it's as a reminder of the subversiveness of old-style circus, once the only resort of the freakish. Yet none of Mordoj's many circus skills is deployed in a traditional way. One balancing act involves her sprawling on the floor with a washbasin on her head as she flips snail shells into it with her toes. In another, she balances bird-headed bendy canes on various ledges of her body and circles serenely on the spot, like a fine-art mobile.

There is ghoulish humour in a ventriloquism sequence as Mordoj tries to negotiate a truce between two articulated animal skulls, one a haughty former ram who performs German lieder in a refined tenor, the other a mischievous ex-badger who makes rude interruptions (in sub-titled French). The fact that you never see Mordoj's lips move is the least of these marvels.

A stock-in-trade magician's stunt also gets a makeover as Mordoj drives long skewers into a box containing the skulls of two more badgers, then, for added torture value, dramatically strings the box from a hangman's gallows and drowns it in a tub of water. Once retrieved, the skulls are examined. The first is pronounced dead, but the other, its brother, shows signs of "life" and gasps for breath. The spontaneous sigh of relief from the Barbican audience was the most persuasive proof of the power of theatre that I have ever witnessed.

Ultimately, in its small-scale, off-beat way, Eloge du poil is making the grandest of statements about death and life, about human powerlessness, and the necessity, therefore, to make the most of what we have – be that curiosity, compassion, or unusual facial hair.

Mime Festival ends today with events at London’s ICA and Southbank

Next Week:

Jenny Gilbert gets a taste of dance delights to come at the Sadler's Wells Sampled weekend