The Barbican | February 2016
It’s been a while since I reviewed for you lot at Postdramatic, so apologies in advance for the rust.
It’s also been a while since I have had something I’m genuinely excited to write about. He Who Falls by Compagnie Yoann Bourgeois has certainly gone some way to restoring my faith in British theatre programming; unsurprisingly this latest treat again comes from across the channel.
First a word about the London International Mime Festival. Offering up circus and physical performance from across Europe, Asia and beyond it is a must if you’re looking for something to inspire you; sometimes you have to take a risk, but chances are you’ll be pleasantly surprised. If you’ve missed it this year, get it in your calendar for next!
He Who Falls revolves- quite literally- around a large square platform, 6 & 1 bodies occupying the vacuous Barbican stage throughout. They begin lifeless, rolling as dead-weight around the descending platform, which creaks and groans into life- perhaps a happy bi-product of its flexible form. The lethargy of movement and sound is transfixing. Of course, the performers are not ‘dead-weight’ at all- their core strength and physical ability is at once transparent, but choreographed and performed with such precision that you would never know.
The platform descends and begins to spin, rapidly, as the 6 bodies come to life, in constantly evolving montage. It’s dangerous- one wrong step would be catastrophic, and the audience revel in it. There is constant reference to fragility throughout, something I will talk about later on. But over the course of the next hour or so, the platform transforms and transports us on an episodic journey, which somehow seems perfectly natural; the neutrality and mundanity of the performers’ expression leads you to think this is status quo, nothing to write home about. In fact, this is where I will voice my only criticism, and I’m probably wrong to do so. A singular moment connecting all 6 performers; 1 looks to another, and that one to then next, and so on, until the last character pauses, and shrugs his shoulder. The shrug suddenly animated this performer, elevating them to a different level, which somehow felt out of place against the otherwise uniform attitude. I can’t help thinking it’s the sort of cheap laugh I’d go for when I was in drama school.
Digression aside, each new episode posed a new ‘challenge’ for the performers to deal with. Lecoq’s fundamental encouragements of le jeu, complicité and disponibilité are ever-present, and visually a joy to watch; faced with a platform balanced on a single central point, the performers revel in the constant challenge of staying level- and seeing them fail in this at first is just as satisfying as their success.
So what does it all mean? Firstly, I think you have to decide whether that matters. Personally it does, but many will enjoy the circus craft for what it is- limit-defying. The arc of performance was very suggestive of a life-cycle. Lifeless beings, born into a vast open space, travelling through challenges, physical and emotional, constantly moving towards a moment of stillness; the piece ends with all performers, hanging from the underside of the platform, one by one losing their fight to ‘hang-on’, until eventually, the last one meets the same, inevitable fate as the other 5. I mentioned fragility- in the sense the fragility of life- they are always a moment from the end. As for the other 1, perhaps symbolic of a higher power? His only interventions throughout are to propel the other 6 closer to the end.
There is so much complexity here, so much to admire about the staging, technology, performers and choreography. Lyn Gardner has commented that it ‘is never moving’. I think you’d have to be heartless not to be moved.