Theatre: Vagabondage Young Vic Studio, London
Theatre: Vagabondage

Young Vic Studio, London

"Water, water on the floor - what is behind the big blue door?" What indeed? The first thing you see when you enter the Young Vic Studio is a socking great metaphor. The uncluttered, spectrally lit space appears to be a dark, oblong pool headed by a pair of beautiful blue panelled doors towering up to the ceiling. It's a remarkable image of appearance and disappearance, arrivals and departures. For most of the piece, visual imagery supplants words. It brings new meaning to the phrase "set text".

Vagabondage, the latest production by Primitive Science, supposedly describes "a pilgrimage through myth and fable, stumbling on magic and irresistible desire." I'm glad I read that on the press release, because the script is so elliptical that you're hard pushed to discern much of a narrative from the ponderously slow slew of sphinx-like utterances that passes for the text. Two narrators (one of whom has such difficulty with the language that entire sentences are lost) feed in philosophical observations such as "if you engage in travel you will arrive". Meanwhile, a vagabond, a timekeeper and a wizard act out the fringes of myth. Borges? Bluebeard? Alice in Wonderland? Who knows? At times it feels like watching an awkwardly dubbed, occasionally compelling Eastern European film.

The company is on stronger ground with its theatrical imagery. There are moments of exquisite beauty - white sand (or is it salt?) bathed in light pouring from the ceiling; streams of water cascading into the pool - which achieve a wholly unexpected tenderness. There is even much-needed wit, including a drooly, sung version of Cole Porter's "Don't Fence Me In", but ultimately the show is far too allusive for its own good. It's fine to work within a dreamlike framework, but dreams have their own logic; much of the internal logic of Vagabondage is so abstruse, it feels more irritatingly baffling than beguiling.

"Installation" used to describe the act of plumbing in your washing machine. That was before the arrival of cultural studies departments. This is installation as theatre, and it is dangerous territory. Maybe it's unfair to compare a young company such as Primitive Science with late-20th-century greats, but this territory is staked out by Deborah Warner's eerie St Pancras Project, or the chilling, thrilling drama of Robert Wilson's mesmerising HG. Vagabondage adds text and actors, but those are its weakest elements. Though broadening dramatic horizons by blurring the division between theatre and conceptual art is a worthy aim, for all its good intentions it fails to make a strong enough case for itself.

David Benedict

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