Method, madness ... and Monnier

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Indy Lifestyle Online
You've managed to dodge the ranter on the Tube by changing carriage at London Bridge, when - would you believe it - there's another waiting for you at The Place. And this one rants in French, something about "caca" and "la guerre" in that unnervingly loud monotone that needs no translation. It says: avoid the eyes. But this is tricky in the circumstances. The theatre - usually a big black box of a studio with raked seating - has been transformed. It's now small and white, with chairs on four sides as if what was expected was not an audience so much as a handful of clinical observers. The light's over-bright, the white lino floor squeaks, and under an oppressively low white ceiling the air is stifling, fuggy. Even before the show gets under way it's obvious that this is some kind of special hospital - to be blunt, a nuthouse. And there's no sneaking out the back. You are part of the performance. It's your sanity that's under attack.

Compagnie Mathilde Monnier, brought to London by the "Turning World" season of new dance from abroad, have spent a good deal of their time in asylums near Montpellier, not dancing but watching. Whether they sat at the edge of a room and gawped, or whether they "worked" with the inmates, we are not told. But their observations form the basis of l'atelier en pieces, "the studio in fragments", which as a title is wilfully nondescript, given what we see.

Clever lighting over and through the translucent papery walls draws attention alternately to activity in the room and outside it. In those deathly lulls endemic to all clinical institutions, people in white coats glide swiftly, silently and purposefully around the perimeter, glimpsed fleetingly in doorways, sometimes communicating confidentially with each other, but always distant, apart. Inside with the audience, the chief characters in this strange drama announce themselves through their idiosyncrasies. Each provokes instant recognition.

There's a thin, dithery, dull-eyed woman who shuffles in straight lines, glass in hand, forever in search of a drink. A lanky man hobbles on, obsessed with his feet. Another is fixated on a steel petanque ball, its repeated rolling along the same strip of floor giving a soothingly regular pulse to what is otherwise a violently erratic sequence of events. The ranter stomps about, moving chairs and plonking himself only inches from one of four television screens which flicker constantly on each side of the room and (in the way of such distractions) are otherwise ignored. If you trouble to watch there is a bearded man doing odd things with his lips. Sometimes he too appears to be watching the inmates. Which one of them is disturbed?

Then the company shows us why it calls itself a dance company. The boule man suddenly breaks out of his trance into an impressively fluid solo, still partnering the ball. A quarrelsome couple perform a fast slapping routine in which each blow stops just short of the other's skin, producing a fiendishly complex dodge-and-duck duet. A girl appears in one corner and distractedly empties a bag of blue powder-paint over her toes, then holds a difficult arabesque while inching backwards on one foot, smearing paint in a great arc across the floor.

Ingenuity saves the work from cliche, just as humour prevents it being mawkish. In a crazy tango provoked by a karaoke version of "Delilah", dancers drag their partners backwards at 45 degrees by the scruff of the neck. The woman with the empty glass perks up and explores its recreational possibilities - attaching it by suction to her leg, her lips, and wickedly, to a bare breast, Monnier encourages us to laugh at and with the extravagances of madness, rather than stand back and pity.

But in the end what can dance tell us about mental instability that we don't already know? Monnier had to enter the white swing doors to do her fieldwork. Over here she'd find it on the streets.

The `Turning World' season continues at The Place (0171 387 0031) and the South Bank (0171 960 4242) to 3 July.