Theatre; FOOTSBARN; Tavistock, Devon

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
With British culture becoming increasingly dependent on hand- outs from the National Lottery, it was a treat to see a queue circling Footsbarn's splendidly decorated marquee in a school field just outside Tavistock. Britain's international theatre had arrived in a ring of trucks, coaches, and caravans. Inside the marquee, the playing area was covered in sand. There were stage lights, but flares from brass urns were the principal illumination.

L'Odyssee was conceived and rehearsed in Kerala in India, and the Indian influence dominates in music, dancing and visual display. There are five Indian actors in the cast of 20, which covers eight nationalities. The actors use their native tongues, so L'Odyssee is performed in a mixture of French, Polish, English, Danish and Malayalam (spoken on India's Malabar coast). Language hardly matters, as Footsbarn's style has the international appeal of epic theatre. There is a visual delight or surprise every minute. Coarse acting, acrobatics, shadowgraph and huge rod puppets, masks, and, above all, an improvised accompaniment on violin and an eclectic collection of percussion instruments make up two hours of non-stop theatrical magic.

The stories of the travels and adventures of Odysseus weave into a glorious tangle of legend, performed with flashing colours at a headlong pace. This is a mixture of commedia, Indian dance, English and French music hall, and Chinese circus, in an energetic, ensemble style. (There's not even a cast list to disturb the collective ideal.) This showy, confident production enraptured a capacity crowd of all ages. This was display theatre at its best: international yet homespun, simple yet sophisticated, brutal but idealistic. There is nothing else to be seen on this scale in Britain.

Footsbarn puts its own stamp on classic texts.The text is read aloud, each actor taking a turn. Then an intense discussion focuses on the essential themes. Improvisation takes over, with ideas tried out, rejected or refined over three months.

Footsbarn is probably the only English company to become a truly international force. Formed in Cornwall in 1971 (by Oliver Foot and John Paul Coo) as a travelling theatre taking in a village a day, it spent 10 years barnstorming Cornwall, holding workshops for the young in Plymouth, including 11-year-old Dawn French.

In 1982 Footsbarn made the grand gesture of sending back a cheque from South West Arts as inadequate, and left for a world tour. Since then, it has played in the US, Australia, India, Russia and most European countries: it is more at home when it is away. Arts bodies in France, Germany and Holland take it seriously and support it better than England ever did. The British Arts Council still regard it as an anomaly; lack of co-operation between regional arts boards has left it with two blank weeks after Tavistock - costing it pounds 40,000 to play in its home country.

Some of the original members have formed companies in Berlin, Lisbon and Galway. This is a company that represents Britain to thousands of foreign theatre-goers but is left stranded when it returns home.

n Tavistock to 9 Sept; Newcastle 26-30 September; Dublin 4-14 Oct; Cork 18-22 Oct; Galway 26-28 Oct

Comments