May B

Choreography by Maguy Marin, music by Franz Schubert, Gilles de Binche, Gavin Bryars
Compagnie Maguy Marin
Sadler’s Wells

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Compagnie Maguy Marin in May B Credit: Hervé Deroo
Compagnie Maguy Marin in May B Credit: Hervé Deroo
Compagnie Maguy Marin in May B Credit: Hervé Deroo

May B is slippery, Beckett bleak and wryly brilliant. Existentialism in action—Sartre’s Being and Nothingness perhapsthough the action is mostly very slow shuffling to grunts, sighs and dissonant shouts—in essence mobile tableaux vivants.

White-faced clown performers in ragged clothes covered in plaster of Paris clay, dust flying off them as they collide, big black eyes: Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Mardi Gras-masked Mummers, all come to mind. I even wonder if Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade of 1967 was an influence, staged as it was in an asylum.

Life is a grim circus, a game of chess, and Endgame is the play May B is based on. “Fini, c’est fini…”—“finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished”, its opening lines spoken by Clov, except it’s not.

Blackness, Schubert lieder, shrill whistles, then silence, another whistle and slowly the ten dancer actors appear out of the murk, form a circle, the tension painful. The tiniest gesture is relevant—even in the dispossessed.

The audience laughs—nervously? What is funny? Is it a ‘laugh otherwise you’d cry’ response? Why are these down and outs fingering their bums like uninhibited toddlers, why is there simulated group masturbation? A comment on life... Is that all it is?

Ninety minutes no interval and lengthy blackouts (the better to make us focus?), on and on it goes, incrementally, seemingly aimlessly, purposelessly, filling the empty stage. In tight ensemble, in two separate groups, in pairs, and standing like solitary ghosts, they huddle, spar and mate.

Pozzo and Lucky turn up and sit at the side. Waiting for Godot… I thought this was meant to be Endgame… Hamm and Clov appear at the back. It’s all the same… tyranny, and the blind leading the blind. Gilles de Binche’s medieval music soothes the soul for a moment.

A birthday cake is brought on, and all grab, some take more than one piece, depriving others. Pozzo takes the biggest and saves some for later in his basket. Capitalism? All meticulously underpinned by Schubert’s lieder. They pose for a group portrait, and are gone…

Or are they? The audience seems to think it’s over, but it’s a false ending. Darkness reigns, then Gavin Bryars’s “Jesus’ Love Never Failed Me Yet” plays on a loop, his 1971 piece of worked found music—a tramp singing it in the Elephant and Castle area. Poignant, hopeful, an old man sings beautifully.

The group returns in outer clothes, hats and scarves. They carry bags and suitcases—a convoy of the displaced. Shuffling where? They come over the cliff of the front stage, down into the auditorium and out, but return on stage though the backdoors, the staggering group now diminished. Some have found scraps of food.

When the old lady is painfully lifted over that drop, I think of the displaced of today and in the Second World War. Beckett was in the French Resistance during that period. Today’s wars in the Middle East and Eastern Europe are the images I see—an old lady being evacuated from a village under bombardment. Another Schubert lieder: its dying piano chords speak for all time.

May B was created in 1981—Maguy Marin asked for Samuel Beckett’s permission to make this piece, which, not only did he gladly give, but came to visit her. This is its long-delayed, timely revival.

The curtain call is slow. They stand at the back, timid, as if about to be shot by firing squad. Slowly, they come forward and dare to acknowledge the applause. Their removed carpet slippers stay at the front of the stage. So many visual references, it’s not an easy watch. C’est fini.

Albin Chavignon’s lighting design, crepuscular to start, takes time to find the lost souls on the stage. Louise Marin’s ragged costumes give individuality to dancers Kostia Chaix, Kaïs Chouibi, Lazare Huet, Daphné Koutsafti, Antoine Laval, Louise Mariotte, Lisa Martinez, Alaïs Marzouvanlian, Isabelle Missal, Ennio Sammarco.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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