Turn out the light in a crowded room, shine a torch on the wall, and it won't be long before someone starts making rabbits with their fingers. That same childish impulse lies at the heart of Light!, one of the most outré offerings at this year's Mime Festival, a season in which the fantastical and unexpected have become more or less the norm.
Belgium's Compagnie Mossoux-Bonté has been a frequent visitor in the last 10 years with its complex illusionism, but its new show is altogether simpler and spookier. Employing just one human figure, a blank screen and a search-lamp beam, it aims to "reconcile us with the pocket of darkness which created us", manufacturing along the way sufficient monsters, creepy-crawlies and corporeal disfigurements to feed a lifetime of bad dreams.
The cleverest thing about Nicole Mossoux's presentation is its deft continuity. Rarely offstage for more than two seconds, she almost magically affects at least a dozen costume changes, and many more changes of mood. Stalked by a stranger late at night (the encroaching presence created by a studied positioning of her own torso and clothes), you can almost smell the fear on her. A large hairy spider, King Kong, and a pair of vultures greedily gorging on what appears to be Mossoux's dead body, are pure schlock but brilliantly etched. The pace hots up briefly for a strobe-lit tussle with an assailant (herself), but for the best part of an hour the mood is sombre to the point of ghoulishness. The effect is magnified by an electronic soundtrack (music by Christian Genet) that not only matches one's idea of how blood rushing through arteries, and hairs pricking the backs of necks might sound, but persuades your own blood and nerves to behave likewise. Ultimately, I'm not sure I swallow Mossoux's belief that all our bump-in-the-night fears are a deliberate distraction from thinking about death. Dark equals obliteration: it's all part and parcel, isn't it? But I marvel at the precision Mossoux brings to her rather obscure craft, and cheer that the term "mime" is now so broad as to contain it.
Gentler and more varied entertainment was to be had with Circus Ronaldo, also Belgian, yet this, too, defies all regular expectations of its genre. Ronaldo strips away all circus's spangles and cheesy smiles to reveal a tremulous ego and a delicately beating heart. Gags fail badly, performers fall out, and the marionette opera that forms the show's centrepiece ends in incendiary chaos. Yet throughout the hazard-packed 90 minutes felicities emerge like butterflies.
One man juggles banjos in the air and plucks out a melody as each leaves his hands. Another snuffs out candles with a whip. When a girl sets out eggs in a pattern and dances over them blindfold, it's not admiration that prompts the audience response, but sympathy. Unbeknown to her, a jealous fellow performer has stolen the eggs, leaving her efforts ridiculous. Such miniature human tragedies are what give Circus Ronaldo its air of fragile melancholy, forever teetering on the edge of joy.
The show's tangible strength is its dramatis personae, characters inspired by the stock figures of commedia dell'arte. Part of the fun lies in guessing who is who. There goes Pedrolino, humble, put-upon but wondrously skilled. That one is crabby Arlecchino, the practical joker, and that must be the macho but useless Capitano. Building on this old-established hierarchy allows the show to be as haphazard as it appears. There are few big slapstick laughs. But I remember no other event where single pockets of audience have dissolved into stifled hysterics with no apparent prompting. Circus Ronaldo is a rare and treasurable thing, and its effect is definitely cumulative.
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