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La Fille à la Mode

Devised by the company
dANTE OR dIE
National Theatre
(2011)

La Fille à la Mode publicity image

La Fille à la Mode is a promenade performance that takes place on the stairways and in the corridors, car park and public spaces of the Olivier side of the National Theatre. It takes its name and its inspiration from the very first show performed at the original Theatre Royal in the Haymarket - which was an illegal performance by a French burlesque company about which nothing seems to be known apart from its title. What we get here is a succession of different performance elements and styles that celebrate or bemoan the idea of female celebrity and exploitation.

The audience is greeted by a chic chanteuse with an accordion who sports a white paper gardenia on her little hat and another decorating her instrument. She leads them through a complex warren of passages ways and front of house spaces in which intimate scenes sometimes give place to performance viewed from a distance played by a cast of eight female dancers, actors and musicians.

At the very beginning, led down to the subterranean car park and its lifts, you are sprayed with perfume as you catch the phrase "a woman who does not wear perfume has no future" and encounter a glamorous woman climbing into a car as in a photo shoot, another lying legs in the air peeling off her stockings like a stripper and another playing a harp.

The many facets of womankind are here: celebrity, model, fashion icon, talent, all aspects except the domestic seem to be represented. One woman, high above on the stairways of the Olivier foyers, seems to be escaping from life with alcohol. Another tells of lying naked on a dinner table, a green grape in her navel and food around her for the delectation of the diners. One provocatively serenades each man in the audience and there is a frequent encounter with women displayed on the other side of windows or glass doors trying to get in or out, ogling us as much as we are ogling them. Are they trapped in their societal roles, as sex objects, in marriage? There is a hint of those windows of the red light districts of Amsterdam or Hamburg.

A dancer twists in a dark corridor while another woman displays a sign declaring "This is wonderful"; there are dancers perched on the Stalls bar, others viewed from above perform in unison, flinging themselves on the floor in ground-centred choreography, elsewhere are women with faces suddenly swathed in dark cloth. One woman is glimpsed as many hands caress her and she sings a ballad of warning to young girls about a rich man, her scene dramatically cut off by descending shutters. One victim hangs backwards over the foyer stairs counting, another boasts that she can have seven men at one time.

What does it all add up to? The chanteuse's song must be a clue but only the odd phrase is intelligible. There is a section of choreography that is repeated in different locations involving outstretched arms and belly clutches which seemed to be miming pain and suffering, though hard to see through crowded watchers. What is it saying about the cost of being a woman at the centre of attention, about being objectified for the final image seems to be women cast off and rejected on a rubbish heap?

Directed by Daphna Attias and Terry O'Donovan, the complex journey through the bowels of the National is cleverly contrived and the performers (Eleanor Buchan, Rachel Drazek, Aine Dwyer, Laura Obiois Albiñana, Anna Richmond, Clara Solana, Géhane Strehler and Eve Veglio-White) present each episode with a conviction that keeps you engaged for the promenade's duration but it does not seem to be saying anything new or even very forcefully.

Despite the intimacy of some elements it left me remarkably unmoved, despite its exposure of naivety and exploitation. Rather than feel any male guilt, I found myself thinking what a delight a lingerie fetishist would find in its flaunting of bodies in filmy, glittering costumes. Perhaps it has a different effect on women but I think this is actually intended as a quite lighthearted look at the female objectified: a celebration rather than a critique.

"La Fille à la Mode" plays as part of the National Theatre's Watch This Space Festival until 20th August 2011. Performances are at 2 pm, 3.3Opm & 5 pm.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton