Part of London International Mime Festival
London, Barbican Theatre
28 January 2016
Gallery of pictures by Foteini Christofilopoulou
A gun-metal grey, wing-to-wing, wall of hammered steel foreshortened the dimly-lit stage of the Barbican Theatre. The small group of performers – men and women – might be prisoners in an exercise yard; or perhaps that wall symbolises confinement on a scale greater than a single penal institution: a barrier that separates states; of mind, as well as nationhood.
Greyness is an all-embracing colour palette for The Return, emphasised in the diverse loose clothing worn by these six inmates and/or refugees. Without the hindsight of reading the thematic intention behind this abstract work, I wondered if its purpose may have something to do with the double jeopardy faced by today’s refugees: they seek to regain their liberty by fleeing from tyranny only to lose it through incarceration in a “camp”, or worse, by drowning, or otherwise perishing, in their flight.
Post-performance, I learn that the work is loosely based upon Giacomo Badoaro’s libretto for Claudio Monteverdi’s seventeenth century opera, The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland (Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria), which illustrates Ulysses’ struggle to reclaim his kingdom and his wife, Penelope, after a long absence in the Trojan wars. My appreciation of the work was unimpaired by the absence of this knowledge during the performance. It is one of those rare theatrical experiences that might easily suit many diverse interpretations.
To begin with, the performers appear as any ordinary people; that is, until they start to do extraordinary things. For this chapter of the London Mime Festival also marks the return of Circa, a well-established Australian company that blends circus arts into contemporary physical theatre with the minimum of fuss and apparatus.
All acrobats are exceptional but these combine stunning physical feats with an emotional intensity that sat well with my abstract notions of loss, flight, sea journeys and grief, much of which one can later read across to the libretto of Monteverdi’s opera (and, incidentally, since that disappeared without performance for two centuries, it also fits neatly with a notion of The Return).
I may not have been transported to Ulysses’ Ithaca but I was arrested by the brilliant hand-to-hand dexterity, strength and partnered balances of these outstanding gymnasts. The small ensemble ran through what seemed like the whole catalogue of acrobatic arts in 70 minutes of epic endurance, not least for Nathan Boyle, the group’s stand-out ironman, whose deceptively lithe physique was the rock upon which most of the acrobalance depended: one especially memorable trick was to have a girl balanced, standing upright, on each bicep, while Boyle – also standing – looked nonchalantly into the distance.
There was an unbroken, seamless interaction between the performers, whether working in couples, in rare solo activity, split into trios or as a group, which required pinpoint accuracy in the collaborative timing of each individual. One stand-out solo was Bridie Hooper’s aerial routine, climbing, spiralling and falling – sometimes violently – with her body wrapped around and within the large ribbons of fabric.
The memorable sensory atmosphere of the work was both enhanced and interrupted by the live music onstage. The physical theatre is interlaced with four arias from Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, sung with resounding sentiment by Robert Murray and Kate Howden (I don’t know the opera but it’s a reasonable guess to assume that they sang in character as Ulysses and Penelope). Four other, living composers are credited for the rest of the score, which seems to consist of an electronic reduction and reassembly of the Monteverdi pieces and an entirely separate modernist cello solo. None of this worked as well as the physical theatre. The opera singers distracted attention from the movement and the electronic score was at such odds with the Monteverdi arias that – for me, at least – it pierced the envelope of my arrested consciousness on the plight of those refugees, or even, on later reflection, the homeward journey of Ulysses.
I love the Circa concept of contemporary circus-based theatre linked to classical music but, here, the musical side of the equation grows to become too complex and unwieldy, drawing our attention away from the main event. Less musical extravagance would have led to an even more satisfying theatrical experience.