The Table, Soho Theatre, London
Romeo and Juliet, Royal Opera House, London
A puppet who lives on a kitchen table holds attention and provokes emotion in an undefinable piece of theatre
Sunday 15 January 2012
Marketing the London International Mime Festival must be an annual headache.
What is it, for a start? It might be easier to say what it isn't, but even that involves qualification. It's certainly not a poor man's Cirque du Soleil, nor a three-week season of euro-zoners feeling their way round invisible boxes. Many of the 19 shows on offer this month involve masks or movement, but equally, some involve talking. If there is a trend, it's that physical theatre has become chattier.
This year's opener is typical in its unpredictability and its patter. The British company Blind Summit have made their name in puppetry, but the USP of The Table is that the performance area is limited to the surface of a kitchen table. At one point, we are taken on a tour of its features – front edge, back edge, two sides – with the brimming but half-abashed pride of a self-build home owner.
The occupant of the table (for the past 40 years, he would have us believe) is an unappealing brown creature whose potato-shaped body is too short for his frankfurter legs, his head crafted from folded cardboard. Technically, he belongs to the Japanese style of puppetry called bunraku, operated manually by three people who make no attempt to be invisible. In this instance the one who controls the left arm and head also does the voice, an unmusical thing akin to gargling through gravel which confers a hint of the sex pest when it's suggested to the audience that they "unleash their puppet love" and the character leers: "Would you like to practise on me, madam?"
Despite the repeated threat of a re-run of the past 12 hours in the life of the prophet Moses, the show transpires to be a hymn to procrastination. There is a powerful display of "focus", showing what happens when the operators momentarily turn their gaze away from the puppet ("watch me go all blurry"). And there are amusing demonstrations of silly walks, skating, disco bump and grind, and a mishap with an imaginary running machine – moderately amusing, anyway. The pranks wear thin.
More interesting is the existential pathos that accrues as the puppet works his pitch, unleashing venom on a random woman who dares to pull up a chair at his table, but clearly longing for the opposite result when he barks "Don't you come near me!". In time, the bullish self-aggrandisement of a cramped, lonely life comes to seem quietly tragic, with resonance far beyond the limits of a piece of furniture.
The table returns for the show's final segment, following an anomalous stint without any table at all. Dexterity and wit are reasserted in a joyously original skit in which a lurid adventure story involving a crash, a chase and an escape is rolled out by means of drawings on A4 sheets pulled from a briefcase, to the risibly incongruous strains of Elgar's Serenade for Strings. You see the Mime Festival's problem: you can't put a name to this kind of thing.
To the frustration of some, the Royal Ballet is not much in thrall to novelty. Kenneth MacMillan's production of Romeo and Juliet has barely been out of the repertory since its premiere in 1965, yet it remains the steadiest of box-office draws. The latest revival is the first since last year's arena blast at the O2, and it's all the more vital, whether from relief at not having to semaphor the steps, or from a dawning awareness that time is ticking for Carlos Acosta (40 next birthday) and Tamara Rojo (known to be planning her next move), who together set the bar for later casts. Both are at their stupendous peak as the teenage lovers – no suspension of disbelief required.
They keep it fresh, I suspect, by living dangerously. While the steps are set, the nuance and flare of their risky affair is left to the heat of the moment. Acosta's cheeky "see y'around" wave as he is escorted from the ball he gatecrashed triggers a ripple of subtly contrasted emotions across the stage. His animal fury as he lugs the unresponding Juliet about the crypt is almost frightening. In turn, the way Rojo hardens her small body in resolve after letting out a great silent howl against her fate is one of the most compelling sights on a London stage. The rest of the cast are inspired to raise their game to match. See this.
'The Table': Soho Theatre, London W1 (020-7478 0100) to Sat. Mime Festival continues to 29 Jan (mimefest.com). 'Romeo & Juliet': in rep at the ROH (020-7304 4000) until 31 Mar
BalletBoyz Michael Nunn and William Trevitt danced together for 25 years before stepping aside in 2010. The eight fit young blades who make up The Talent may have spent less of their short lives in ballet class, but have already proved well up to the task of selling the BalletBoyz brand to the Twitter generation. Their spring tour takes in 23 venues – this week (Fri and Sat) it's the turn of Cambridge Arts Theatre – with a feast of exhilarating dance intercut with the company's distinctive use of film footage. At London's Linbury Studio, popular Mime Festival regulars Gandini Juggling Project premiere Smashed an unlikely homage to Pina Bausch involving 80 apples and an awful lot of crockery (Wed to Sat).
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