"Anti-gravity" choreography, soundscapes, jugglers, metaphysical swinging sculptures. It's not hard to guess why "visual theatre" is either loved or loathed. Loved by truly artistic, free-wheeling spirits, loathed by the rest of us.
"People often think visual theatre is too esoteric and pretentious, but in fact it's anything but," says a festival spokesman, Ben Chamberlain. "It's totally accessible and often drawn from stand-up comedy, film, or music hall. You don't need a huge amount of artistic knowledge or references to see or respond to what's going on."
In the past five years, visual theatre has boomed. And to a large extent, Theatre de Complicite, the first company ever to experiment credibly with straight theatre, pioneered this boom. "They were the starting point for visual theatre," says Chamberlain. "And they've inspired a whole generation to do the same kind of stuff."
Stuff? Well, yes. No one ever knows quite what to call it. But those who make visual theatre boast that their work, being more reliant on actions than words, is braver and riskier (ie, more open to failure) than conventional theatre - and this is true. How often have we all seen great but small ideas get overdeveloped into kitchen trapeze/ striptease stunts, and die. People painting themselves orange, bashing fruit around and then setting their hair alight will always say absolutely nothing to an audience.
Yet passing all visual theatre off as silly and meaningless is also wrong. Among the 30 different companies involved, there are some whose artistic ideas and antics will genuinely enthral. Tonight's festival starts at the Battersea Arts Centre with Emily Woof, (Robert Carlyle's ex-lover in The Full Monty) who presents Going Going, an extraordinarily clever mini-play involving a blabbermouth woman lost in a forest. Sure that she is being followed by an evil force, she is finally silenced when it turns out that she is, in fact, the one doing the following.
Also at the BAC tonight are the aerial acrobats and double- act Tango and Crash, who will be swinging off ropes in the grand marble foyer.
Meanwhile, later on in the programme, Frantic Assembly choose a boozy millennium party in which to stage an energetic confessional reflection on late-20th-century social mores, entitled Zero. Vanessa Earl beautifully pulls off My Big Sky, about a woman who learns to fly. And also be sure to catch the London and Edinburgh Fringe hit Grace, presented by the Jade Theatre Company. A countdown to its heroine's 30th birthday, of all the studies of angsty Nineties woman, theirs shaves closest to the bone.
Whatever your artistic predilections are, the festival should hold something for anyone with half an imagination. Yes, you'll find action, drama, and pathos - just don't go expecting Shakespeare.
The British Festival of Visual Theatre runs from tonight to 2 November at the Battersea Arts Centre, London, SW11 (0171-223 2223), The Young Vic, London, SE1 (0171-928 6363) and The South Bank, London SE1 (0171 960 4242). Free brochures of events are available at these venues and ticket prices vary between pounds 4-pounds 9.
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