Josef Nadj, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The confessions of a surrealist opium eater

Nadine Meisner
Tuesday 22 January 2002 01:00

Atmospherical sepia-tinted and Eastern European, Josef Nadj's Comedia Tempio took a long time to warm up. For the first half of its 80-minute duration, I squirmed in my seat, and asked myself what the point was ofthis swarm of identikit, tail-coated, bowler-hatted men, part-way between Kafka and Magritte. They piled and oozed through sudden openings. They assembled wooden chairs, planks and ladders into grotesque sculptures and sinister apparatus. Two mysterious women seemed by turns to manipulate and be manipulated.

The Compagnie Josef Nadj is based in Orléans. Hungarian by birth, Nadj trained in Paris with Marcel Marceau, and fuses mime with contemporary dance into a distinctive, powerfully athletic medium. He has shown his work in London with much success since the 1980s, and was last here three years ago for the London International Mime Festival, to which he now returns with Comedia Tempio.

The piece's subject is the life and work of a fellow Hungarian. Born in 1888, Geza Csath was an avant-garde artist and psychiatrist, who early on recognised Freud's importance. Nadj calls Comedia Tempio a "homage" – although such admiration for someone who became addicted to opiates and died at 32 before finishing his medical studies seems disproportionate.

At first, the show's best feature appeared to be its set of movable wooden walls and shutters, which unexpectedly opened into doors and platforms, and contributed to the sense of dislocation. But then the pace abruptly accelerated into a increasingly manic, headlong journey. A man with no legs scuttled in, his jacket almost touching the floor. Wheelchairs became gurneys and, as the various contraptions became more outrageous, so the impression that we were in some nightmarish laboratory grew stronger.

But the animals being studied were not rats but live, captive people. A man, caught up in a tangle of ropes and pulleys, was a human version of Pavlov's dog, stimulated by the sound of clanging. Another was visible only as a head poking out of a box, observed by a mad scientist. The visual jokes became as funny as they were physically and hair-raisingly outrageous. It's not every day you see a man sitting on the end of a vertical plank, while the other end is balanced on somebody else's head. The 10 performers, who included Nadj, needed to be a remarkably agile bunch.

As the end approached, I wondered how it would all be resolved. Would the characters wake up and realise that it was all only a hallucination? No, they didn't, and the piece just stopped. But then, Geza Csath was really only a pretext for an unforgettable ride into the recesses of some impressively deranged thought processes.

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