Before I start in on this review I must be very clear. Unless Mills can afford to invite Mnouchkine back again you are unlikely to see anything like this in the UK again in a hurry. I unequivocally urge you to get a ticket if you can and experience it despite the overall reservations I shall make in the course of this review about the show. This justifies the trek to Ingliston as neither of Mills's other two shows there have done.
This show takes place on a vast stage which is visually very striking. We are in an enormous rooftop space above a restaurant somewhere in Paris (I think) on the eve of the First World War. Sets manouvred by the cast appear and disappear from the rooms off stage and from the rear curtained off portion of the main area. In the centre a complex system of pulleys and counterweights is constantly in use to suspend surtitle screen, actors and other elements of the design. The attention to detail in the visuals throughout this epic recalled to my mind some of the lavish toys from the film of that name, and the theatre as constructed in Moulin Rouge. But these aren't things I can recall ever seeing on a British stage.
The conceit of the show is that filmmakers who have walked out of the leading French company have taken over this space to make a film based on an unpublished Jules Verne novel Les Nuafrages du Fol Espoir. Although the programme argues that the making of nine silent film episodes is interpolated within the overall story of the making of the film in practice the piece is dominated by those filmmaking episodes and they are much the strongest element. The brilliancy of their evocation – shipwrecks, howling wastelands, falling snow, birds, men rowing small canoes across the stage – cannot really be described in prose but has to be witnessed. It is unquestionably a magnificent achievement.
It is also important to stress how impressive this company of actors is as actors, and how well they have been directed both individually and collectively. In particular the precisions and detail of the movement is way beyond what British companies manage – with in particular a great deal of humour (I loved the faking of stairs in the film episodes and people throwing themselves to the floor as they realise they're about to come into camera shot).
But there is a problem – nowhere near as much attention has been given to the script – also apparently a collaborative effort with the key role taken by the company's long term writer Helene Cixous. The result is that one gradually becomes aware that the while in terms of visuals especially Theatre du Soleil are streets ahead of any other company I've experienced, they actually have a basic view not wholly disimilar to other directors such as Marthaler and Purcarete who I have experienced at this Festival. That is they think that visuals and movement and a moral can enable one to dispense with narrative and character – or at least significantly downgrade them in importance. And I'm afraid that despite many extraordinary aspects of this performance it did not convince me that even Ariane Mnouchkine has yet managed to find a way that truly allows you to play as fast and loose with those key elements of theatre as this show does.
Because the fact is that one is never shown enough of any of these characters for one's heart to be more than briefly engaged by them. The engagement is slightly deeper with the filmic characters than the filmmakers but it is still not enough. A particular consequence is that when the crucial moral points are made it is like being lectured – the lectures go on too long and because I had not really been properly introduced to the people making the points it was my intellect alone which was engaged – no matter how much I agreed with much of what was being said. There are also more specific problems – the framing of the filmmaking with the coming of the First World War is never really effectively got to grips with and is completely abandoned towards the conclusion, and although the last image on stage is typically striking it doesn't wholly conceal the implication that the company couldn't quite work out how to stop. It is also perhaps unfortunate that the publicity plays up comparisons with The Artist – the text cards in that film were a superb script to a taut narrative.
As I said at the beginning of this review this is a unique experience and you should absolutely secure a ticket and go and see if if you have not already done so. But I stick to my view that I have still not seen a show which, having decided to downgrade or dispense with plot and character, has found a satisfactory replacement. Because of this, and because overall it did not engage my heart I did not join the standing ovation at the conclusion of the evening.
9 months ago