les ballets C de la B, Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House


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The Independent Culture

The Old King shows a man reduced to wordlessness, fighting to communicate or connect with an audience. Dancer Romeu Runa flails about, putting himself through gruelling tasks.

It’s the kind of show that makes you worry about the performer’s physical health: he falls, gets repeatedly soaked, drags himself over wooden pallets. He seems permanently at risk of chill or splinters.

The Old King, part of the London International Mime Festival, was created by Runa with poet and director Miguel Moreiera, with the support of Belgian physical theatre company les ballets C de la B. It’s built around the image of Runa struggling. The show lasts an hour, but feels much, much longer.

Slack-jawed and gormless, he stumbles and pulls himself up, trying to rearrange the world around him. On the wall behind him, text messages ping, hard to read in the dim light. He ignores them. A stage hand directs a jet of fine spray at him for minutes at a time, creating a wet mist that drips off Runa’s bare limbs.

Moreira and Runa dwell on the kind of physical helplessness that actually requires great stamina. Runa is a strong and extremely flexible performer, folding in places where the human body doesn’t seem designed to bend. As the show starts, he sits with a spotlight on his back, his head bowed in the shadows. His neck tilts so deeply that he looks literally headless.

It’s a witty, surreal image, but that’s not how the rest of the show goes. Instead, it focuses on the slog of Runa’s performance, making the same point over and over. He piles up pallets, making a speaker’s platform from which he fails to speak. When he tests the pile by jumping on it, the top pallet breaks, leaving him precariously off-balance on a high tower. He strips down to his underwear, or stuffs a potted plant into his pants and goose-steps about the stage.

Moreira and Runa may be aiming for Beckettian repetition, failure as part of life. If so, it’s undercut by unvaried tone and by the show’s physical extremes. Too much of Runa’s performance is virtuoso self-flagellation. His blank face and tortured body make his struggle for expression look limited. 

Until 23 January. Box office 020 7304 4000. London International Mime Festival continues until 27 January; www.mimelondon.com