By Mummenschanz Company
How do you describe in words a production which is totally silent, without even a music track?
How can a reviewer explain how four middle-aged people, who no longer have the honed bodies of dancers, can enchant a whole theatre of adults and children simply by making physical patterns?
For two hours we sat entranced, mesmerised, uplifted, as sheets of fabric blew in the wind, a mammoth-sized lump of mud (or worse) rolled slowly and deliberately onto the people in the front seats, and rolls of pink and blue toilet paper performed an elaborate courting ritual. Mummenschanz have now been performing for more than 30 years I suppose that explains the title of the show and now return to Brisbane after almost 20 years: they were last seen here at World Expo 88. So there’s a whole new generation to be won over by this transformative kind of mime, where plasticine, paper, felt and parachute silk become anything the performers, and the audience, want them to be.
The first half used the more elaborate costumes, so that the human bodies behind them were almost irrelevant, and it was the sheer technical brilliance that absorbed us. How were those two long pieces of board that became stick figures manipulated? Where did the air that kept the Leunig-like balloon faces come from, and how did they turn inside out as the creatures moved, so that the longed-for kiss seemed impossible to achieve? How many people were inside that Creature-from-the-Black-Lagoon blob, and how could the two performers who teased their head-defining luminous wires into different expressions possibly know whether they were achieving the effect they desired?
It was like watching magic tricks when at last you become exhausted from the mental effort of trying to understand the techniques, you just sit back and let it wash all over you, appreciating the emotional beauty of what was happening on stage.
My very favourite was the Michelin Man, whose tubes of flexible wire and paper allowed him to become Mr Slinky and the Elephant Man at the same time, while the giant white hands (actually huge headdresses on human bodies), that pulled back the curtains and then applauded each other, had everyone in stitches from the beginning.
In the second half the creatures became more human, and were all about relationships, often with sexual innuendoes, but nothing so obvious as to be grubby. These segments were mostly done with different heads on the actors’ black-clad bodies, so that a twin-plug eventually united with its appropriate socket and the stage lit up. But the joke continued after they waltzed off-stage together, with bursts of light continuing to flash on and off for a minute afterwards.
Another couple, eyes and mouths depicted by pads of tear-off paper sheets, conducted a whole relationship, from courtship through arguments to reconciliation, simply by tearing off sheets of paper and revealing different eye movements and happy or sad mouths. It sounds very simple, but when you see how fast they are doing it, and that they can’t see exactly which mouth/eye pattern they are revealing, the skill becomes apparent, and again you’re forced to contemplate the technical mastery of it all.
That’s what so wonderful about Mummenschanz. Their technical skill spills seamlessly over into pure emotion, rather like the edge of an infinity pool. One minute you’re puzzling about which way the body inside the costume is facing, and the next you’re ooh-ing and aah-ing with delight or pity. My friend (admittedly it was Valentine’s Day and he was feeling a bit emotional anyway, because the love of his life wasn’t with us) was close to tears a couple of times, while the five-year-old behind us was squeaking with joy, and even the bored teenagers in the front row showed some emotion as the mud-shaped blob rolled slowly but inexorably towards them.
And, as someone who no longer has the flexibility or the shape of a 20-year-old, I was delighted to see, at the curtain call, four very middle-aged people who were able to demonstrate that just because performers are over 50, they don’t have to sit in rocking chair and bemoan their lost youth. So it’s back to the gym for me!
Technical Direction by Ueli Riegg
Playing until Saturday 18 February – Thursday at 6.30pm, Friday 7.30pm, Saturday 1.30pm, 7.30pm
Duration: 2 hours, with a 20 minute interval