Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Seen, Not Heard: Helen Chappell Discovers That These Days There's More to Mime Than French Clowns in White Make-Up

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Seen, Not Heard: Helen Chappell Discovers That These Days There's More to Mime Than French Clowns in White Make-Up

Article excerpt

Imagine a bare blue stage and a man tap-dancing to Max Bygraves's version of the song "You Need Hands". He scoops up a wire-mesh sculpture of an old man and strikes up a conversation with it. In a darkened room in another part of town, beetles scamper through a human skull, watched over by a tatty, two-foot munchkin waving a bayonet. Elsewhere, fluorescent 20-foot poles are performing a ballet on stage, dancing in midair all on their own. Just a few Tube stops away, there's sex on legs--a naked man engulfed by shop mannequin limbs wearing sheer black stockings and suspenders.

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Now sweep those images from your mind and picture a silent, white-faced man dressed as a clown with a limp daisy sprouting from his lapel. He is leaning into an invisible storm, the gale-force wind trying to knock him off his feet. What's going on? No problem: it's mime. But the same is true of the other images, all of which are scenes from shows being performed as part of the International Mime Festival at venues across London this month.

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The only ingredient missing from the festival is those silent clowns, as created by the French mime icon Marcel Marceau. Instead, audiences can expect speech, song, dance, puppets, circus, cookery, giant digital images, nudity, aerial acrobatics, automata and animatronics. Mime today seems to include just about anything.

As the festival enters its 30th year, however, some awkward questions are becoming inevitable. If mime can now mean almost anything, perhaps the concept has been stretched to the point where it means nothing at all. The word "mime" may distract more than it illuminates. Do today's theatregoers really need a festival of mime? The Berlin-based performer Hajo Schuler, who is bringing his theatre company Familie Floz to the festival, is no fan of the label. "We refuse to use the word mime," he says, "because it creates so much confusion. When people hear it, pictures come into their heads which have nothing to do with us." In Schuler's show Ristorante Immortale, the performers speak, dance and wear huge surreal masks to tell the Beckettian tale of a restaurant that never attracts any customers.

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Andrew Dawson, whose tap-dance to Max Bygraves recalls his dead father, uses speech, sound and film in his show Absence and Presence. "Many people are stuck in the past when they think about mime," he admits, "especially in the UK. We have a long text-based tradition of theatre stretching back to Shakespeare. …

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