300 el x 50 el x 30 el

Stef Aerts, Joé Agemans, Bart Hollanders, Matteo Simoni, Thomas Verstraeten and Marie Vinck
Toneelhuis / FC Bergman
Barbican Theatre

The company in 300 el x 50 el x 30 el Credit: Kurt van der Elst
Paul Kuije Credit: Kurt van der Elst
Gert Portael Credit: Kurt van der Elst
Herwig Illegems Credit: Kurt van der Elst

The numerical title comes from the dimensions which the Old Testament Book of Genesis says God laid down for the ark that he instructed Noah to build: 300 cubits long, 50 wide and 30 high. Today, thousands of years later, the ice caps are melting and the seas are rising.

In a world where the winds now turn into gales and the sky rumbles ominously, there is a cluster of homes in a pine forest that circle a pond where a man sits, staring into the darkness though supposedly fishing.

It is he who is seen first, isolated in darkness, along with video screens which show an old man in bed, a drip in his arm, sensor pads on his chest and a hoist for him to pull himself up: but he seems motionless. There’s a cage overhead, home to a pigeon, a model galleon on a window ledge. When the house lights go down and the angler finishes a cigarette, a black drop behind him disappears to reveal the huts of the village. On screen, the old man frees himself of his medical appendages, slowly rises and leaves his hut. Very, very slowly he advances on stage. What happens in public is on stage, a camera crew can capture what is going on behind doors as well.

300 el x 50 el x 30 el was created in 2011 by theatre collective FC Bergman which had been formed in 2007 by a group who had been students of Ivo van Hove. If you know that director’s way of working with cameras, you will recognize his influence but this company from Antwerp give their integration of video a surreal edge, their close-ups of privacy seem to parody van Hove’s style, tongue-in-cheek at the same time as being deadly serious as they show what is going on in each of huts.

While the stage set is elaborate with a complete forest of real trees, a deep pond in the leaf-covered ground (though the trees here aren’t deciduous), the hut interiors are cramped, obvious sets, unreal though packed with real props. Strangely, this adds to the intimacy, as though seeing into souls, not just obvious actions.

In a narrow room, a girl is squeezed in playing a piano, her mother sitting next to it beating time or dementedly distracted, a bath filled with water on the other side of a thin partition. In another hut, a group of guys drinks, smokes and plays darts (very badly). A third shack is furnished with little more than a rough table on which sits a model of this settlement, a young guy in a metal military helmet seems to be preparing to blow it up.

Before revealing more, the camera comes out into the open, being pushed around on a truck shooting the stage scene before revealing more. There is a middle-aged Jewish guy with his wife and children, the wife working her way through the food that is piled on the table, a woman straining on the toilet in the same room as a man sits on the bed with his trousers off trying unsuccessfully to masturbate.

People come out into the clearing, a little boy investigates the old man’s room (he’s walked away and doesn’t come back), there’s greed, slaughter, bullying, violence, copulation, what looks like a plan for elopement, suicide. The pond delivers up a dead sheep: it hangs dripping, a drowned agnus dei, is this God’s pact broken?

Strange things happen to the trees, the piano-playing girl wanders through the forest and finds herself back again, a little girl seems to be lost in it. Is that rising water behind her? Some are lost but the survivors become involved in a watery ritual that seems to have an ecstatic ending. The camera crew get caught up in the excitement, the audience is on screen and the stage fills with people. Decide for yourself what it means: each of you differently? Salvation? Extinction?

With bursts of music by Vivaldi, The Persuasions and Nina Simone but otherwise not a word spoken, this is a compelling eighty minutes driven by the concentration of fifteen dedicated performers and their supporting stage crew. It rivets the attention, afraid you’ll miss something happening as both video and on-stage action demand you watch them.

It has already been touring the world for over five years, but it is only four days in London as part of 2018’s London International Mime Festival. That’s a pity because it is really worth seeing.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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