I intend no disrespect to the multi-national quintet of humans who comprise this extraordinary cast by saying that the set is the most memorable feature of Du Goudron et des Plumes (“Tar and feathers”). To paraphrase the old Superman slogan: is it a plane, an alien space-ship, a raft, a pirate’s galleon, a flying carpet or just the windmills of our minds? Apparently, this design by Goury could be all this and anything else that we might want it to be.
This remarkable experience is a cocktail of circus skills, dance, mime, comedy and illusion all wrapped up in an absorbing package of ebullient physical theatre. It is a marathon run at the pace of a 400-metre dash, opening with the five performers being consumed by the descending “craft”. For the next 80 minutes this fearless five balanced upon, hung from, jumped off and swung around their (largely) airborne platform. It sprouted a plank from the prow of the “ship” (hence the earlier piratical allusion) on which they sat, bounced or walked; it tilted precariously, even when 20 feet or so above the stage with the acrobats still going about their business; or their unstable platform swung with increasing velocity in a horizontal arc just as if an old-style fairground version of that galleon. When stationed on the ground it became a playground of things to climb and balance upon. These episodes developed into something akin to an after-hours riot on a building site with slapstick smashing of plasterboard into dust, scaling vertical planks of wood and balancing on horizontal boards as they are bounced up and down by others.
The show’s fast pace is all the more remarkable since the five are virtually ever-present throughout the show, although cleverly taking rotational “breaks” while still on stage. And while each gets a chance to show off their special virtuoso skills, the whole event is so well produced by Mathurin Bolze (also one of the performers) and his team that there is a marvellously coherent, seamless flow of activity. There is hardly a second wasted in transitions. The lone girl (26-year-old Maroussia Diaz Verbèke) is certainly as rugged and acrobatic in her extreme physical skills as any of the four guys and her bravery is emphasised by a taped shoulder. I find it hard to believe how these performers manage to get through any show without incurring casualties. Three of the five (Verbèke, Tsirihaka Harrivel and Erwan Ha Kyoon Larcher) are also part of a cirque quartet known as Mosjoukine (after a famous Russian silent film star). The fifth member of Compagnie MPTA is Tom Neal, a specialist in the gymnastic wheel.
It is no surprise that this excellent Company has enjoyed several creative residencies across France or that this is a repeat engagement following a sold-out run at the Barbican as part of the London International Mime Festival, last year. It is certainly an exciting physical ensemble which – on the evidence of this show, at least – sets outstanding and innovative skills within a clever structural framework.
We can ask ourselves who these people are and what they are doing? It occurred to me that they might be post-apocalyptic “Mad Max” renegades in a futuristic world, but this is a narrative that thrives on the enigmatic allure of so many allusions. Frankly, it is best simply to marvel at the slick brilliance of the cast and their interaction with this extraordinary set.