THE SINISTER sound of a patrolling army dies away outside and in the desolate, leaky room, a sensitive looking man opens the old volume he has just unearthed, kisses its pages and sniffs in their scent with a happy smile of remembrance. Then, as a searingly nostalgic violin piece steals over the scene, the past begins to re- emerge from hibernation in weird, magical ways. Suddenly the brick back wall of the theatre becomes a nocturnal street as seen from above, so that you appear to be looking down airily - and in open-mouthed delight in my case - on the man who is walking along it in the moonlight.
Meanwhile, figures, absorbedly reading, hatch out of book-filled packing cases and then - further unbalancing any normal sense of orientation - roll across the floor, still reading, as though they inhabit a plane divergent from ours. Cheekily, too, some of these revenants pop out of receptacles far too small to have possibly contained them. Haunting, wondrous, and surreally funny, this spectacle of the past re-awakening forms the unforgettable opening to Theatre de Complicite's Street of Crocodiles, which has just opened at the Cottesloe.
The director, Simon McBurney, has described this company-devised piece as 'a brush with Schulz's imagination', Schulz being the Polish-Jewish writer, Bruno Schulz (shot dead by an SS agent in 1942) whose stories are the show's springboard. In some respects, these works are unlikely candidates for stage adaptation, having little in the way of dialogue or plot structure. And they are written in an intense, sickly poetic prose which instead of propelling you forward keeps detaining you in its clogging richness.
Always set in the small provincial town of Drohobycz and the family home and draper's business, the stories are imaginatively dominated by the eccentric figure of Schulz's father, Jacob, 'the lonely hero' who 'waged war on the fathomless, elemental boredom that strangled the city'. A crank who is always losing his ledger and stuffs the attic with strange eggs (thus giving rise to some spectacular hygiene problems when the exotic birds are hatched), Jacob is also a would-be demiurge, a rival Creator who believes that there is no such thing as dead matter: 'lifelessness is only a disguise behind which hide unknown forms of life'.
His fixed belief in matter's fluidity (he's convinced that his own brother has been gradually transformed into the rubber tube of an enema bag) has its stylistic counterpart in the exuberantly metamorphic nature of Schulz's imagery and vision. It is this that gives his world its theatricality, a fact which McBurney and cast vividly exploit. The legs of upended chairs become the emergent, struggling roots of spring. Matthew Scurfield's splendid, moving Jacob steals up into his attic through the lid of an old-fashioned school desk, the wild aviary there conjured up by flapping books and lunging brollies. And when he is in the sanitorium, firing off mad obiter dicta from his bed, one of his old ledgers, held up behind his head, is a poignant stand-in for a pillow.
The Schulz-figure, Joseph, is played by Cesar Sarachu, whose sensitive performance contributes greatly to the success of the evening. He gives you a valuable point of contact with normality as the show plunges you into a chaotic world where people sit halfway up walls, try to cut cigar smoke with scissors, or strain romantically at one and other in the attempt to join the matching halves of symbolically broken plates. Ranging in mood from broad farce to the piercingly elegiac, the show is played with a hard, fluent balletic energy.
It's debatable though, whether it has anything new to say about the stories. Rather, they provide the company with another exercise in pure style. 'If. . . I were to attempt a criticism of creation,' says Schulz's father 'I would say 'Less matter, more form]' ' If I were to attempt a criticism of Complicite, I would say, 'Less form, more matter'.
The Cottesloe: 071 928 2252.
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