Charlie Cain has left the army. He and his young wife, Mimi, have moved from Hong Kong to London where they have met and befriended Seth Marvel, a therapist. The back story to Justitia is quickly and skilfully told by visual references matched to brief extracts of typewritten script scrolling on a screen above the typist’s head. The set comprises a revolving unit divided into three separate rooms, stylishly designed by Merle Hensel to provide the settings for murder scene, courtroom and other relevant locations such as Seth’s classroom-style group therapy sessions.
The history of this ill-fated trio culminates one afternoon with Charlie and Seth catching the last few minutes of the big match in the Cains’ sitting room. Marvel has brought a bottle of bourbon for the occasion but Charlie has a hankering for beer and pops out to the corner shop, leaving his friend alone with Mimi. When Charlie returns, Seth is dead, bludgeoned by the heavy base of a standard lamp. What happened in those ten minutes is dissected every-which-way in the courtroom drama that follows. The mystery is not so much a whodunit (we know it was Mimi wielding the lamp) but a “whydidshedoit”, with the permutations of motive – fast-forwarded and rewound from every perspective – enough to keep Hercule’s little grey cells fully occupied for a double episode of Poirot. There will be no spoilers here but, even with such limited options, the dénouement still comes with both a surprising twist and a particular dose of poignancy.
An oft-cited criticism of narrative-based modern dance is the need for dramaturgical precision but Vardimon (who appears briefly as the courtroom typist) has developed her concept with fine tuning of the detail, both in the 2007 original by Guy Bar-Amotz and in this 2013 revision by Geoff Colman. Some ambiguity creeps in either side of the interval when we become distracted exploring side tracks off the storyline’s main highway (one involves the defence lawyer recalling her responsibility for a car crash that killed a child; another narrates the crime of passion, which led to Ruth Ellis being the last woman executed in Britain). Notwithstanding these deviations, the action in this tightly controlled narrative remains well-paced and consistently absorbing.
A major triumph throughout the work is a seamless integration of dance with all other theatrical elements. An eclectic yet effective score takes us from Johnny Cash (his shaky but nonetheless masterful interpretation of Bridge Over Troubled Water) to Vivaldi and Purcell. Vardimon’s movement is expertly mixed into this cocktail of text and music to drive the story along its many twists and turns with an unerring clarity and perpetual visual appeal.
The seven-strong ensemble work extremely hard to deliver fast-paced movement with split-second timing and are equally comfortable with spoken and choreographed text. The revolving set also serves as a climbing wall with dining chairs wedged into slots to form steps on one side, while the chair-legs protruding through the wall serve as posts onto which dancers hang diagonally, suspended like human-sized wall plaques. The grotesque portrait of all seven dancers hanging lifelessly is one of several distinctive images freeze-framed into tableaux vivants that are rotated to provide a dramatic and memorable climax.
Moustachioed Paul Blackman reprises his powerful performance as Seth, conveying both athletic strength and flexibility with a malicious, superficial and laddish persona. As Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s script reveals, therapist becomes the rapist with a simple click of the space bar. Aoi Nakamura is a special ingredient in Justitia’s success, playing each version of her involvement in Seth’s death with a mercurial intensity. Mafalda Deville portrays the defence lawyer with due gravitas, handling the lion’s share of Lenkiewicz’s incisive script with clarity. A special mention is also deserved by Estéban Fourmi’s notable cameo as the Cains’ transgender neighbour. “Her” facial dexterity, morphing into cartoonish expressions of shock and surprise, was an amusing leit motif, as was the regular call of “all rise” prompting the seven dancers to leap from seated and standing positions to stand on their chairs (freshly plucked from their racks in the wall) with heads forced down into their shoulders. Fourmi’s vanishing neck was a regular source of humour.
I enjoyed the first iteration of Justitia and with this revival, Vardimon has succeeded in making improvement, further enhancing a slick and fascinating work that is superbly choreographed and performed. It is innovative, gripping, physical and theatrical drama that keeps us guessing until the end.