Using theatre, mime, sound and original live music in exploring the power of imagination to seek wisdom beyond our senses, Theatre Reâ€™s 'Blind Manâ€™s Song' opened the London International Mime Festival at Jacksons Lane. Colin Hambrook reviews a VocalEyes audio-described performance on 22nd January.
Jackson’s Lane theatre holds cherished memories since the early 1980s, when the inside performance space was still just a church. It was a hotbed for theatre fuelled by passion; a theatre that engaged the imagination; a theatre full of possibilities run on raw creativity. [And, of course, Jackson’s Lane produced the groundbreaking Xposure Festival during the early 2000s - one of the first platforms for disabled artists to break onto mainstream theatre stages in London.]
35 years on the theatre is more plush, but still hasn’t changed the essential ethos in what it showcases. Back in 1980 'The Undersea World of Erik Satie' by Impact Theatre Co-operative was one of those seminal productions that evoked an emerging spirit of exploration; a theatre yearning to transcend the restrictions of narrative, relying as much on visual imagery and choreography, wanting to make you feel, as much as it made you think.
Theatre Re’s ‘Blind Man Song’ could be a child or even a grandchild of 'The Undersea World of Erik Satie' employing a comparative palette of artistic and musical references. The show contains the surrealistic leitmotifs of Magritte’s bowler hat, faceless cloth-wrapped faces and handkerchief. It also references one of the most abiding, iconic images from surreal cinema - the scene in Bunuel's 'Un Chien Andalou' when we see the piano being dragged by a rope across the stage like a piece of dead meat. Alex Judd’s musical score renders mesmeric repetitive phrases recalling the euphoric melancholy and vivacious obsession of the likes of Erik Satie and the more contemporary Philip Glass or Penguin Cafe Orchestra.
And both theatre pieces revolve around an age-old theme of unrequited or imagined love. Guillaume Pige and Selma Roth’s performances are as moving as they are disturbing; bringing to life the pain and joy of love at its most deeply felt. A starting point for ’Blind Man’s Song’ is a quote from Helen Keller: ‘The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart.’ In many ways Theatre Re elicit the magic of breaking through restrictions; one of the most powerful scenes uses imagery of cutting out, piercing and imposing the heart as a physical piece of clay.
Overall the choreography is superb with three performers, a bed and a piano all taking part as equal presences within a series of chiaroscuro–lit scenarios. It contains elements of the supernatural, fragile and transient as an emerald green handkerchief deciding the fate of a life through a sleight of hand. In that respect there are nods to the epic quality of Theatre Complicite entering Bulgakov’s devilish world of 'The Master and Margarita'.
There has been much discussion in the media recently on the ins and outs of whether a disabled character should be played by a disabled actor.[See my editorial blog of 19 January] I would tend to veer on the side of there being an argument about creating a fair opportunity for disabled actors, rather than the argument about only a disabled actor being qualified to play a disabled role. However, as much as I wanted to be convinced by Alex Judd’s performance there was an element of naturalism in his portrayal of a blind man that simply wasn’t there.
Bowler hats off to Theatre Re for going to the Haringey Phoenix Group of blind and partially-sighted folk for advice in devising this piece. Members of the group may well disagree, but for me, at least, the integrity of the piece wavers in employing the central character, the blind man, as a metaphor for a deeper understanding of the psyche.
What did really make it for me, as a piece of theatre, though, was William Elliot’s audio-description. What a dream come true for any audio-describer, to have a dialogue-free theatre piece to play with!
Elliot took up the challenge. And in his gentle dulcet tones he guided his audience by headset, through the movement, with a joyful, subtle and effective interpretation. I have a mental condition that makes concentration extremely difficult due to an accumulation of intrusive thoughts. And so the audio-description helps focus and became a vehicle to allow a deeper appreciation of what was overall a satisfying and enjoyable piece of theatre.
'Blind Man's Song' goes to Bracknell, Lincoln and Halifax over the next 2 weeks. Please click on this link to visit Theatre Re's website for more information