Mnemonic

Théâtre du Complicité
Riverside Studios
(2002)

Théâtre du Complicité is, to my mind, one of the most dynamic and imaginative companies working out of Britain. And I say 'out of' because Complicité are theatrical celebrities everywhere, at all the festivals on the Continent and even in America. Perhaps, in Britain they are, in comparison, underrated.

The original company was set up by a small group of practitioners who had trained in Paris with alumni such as Lecoq, Gaultier and Pagneux in a theatrical vein that prioritises the physical and the visual. They gave themselves a French name because they didn't believe that they would get funding for their type of work in Britain. But they did, then at least. Those productions of the early and mid '90s, such as Durrenmatt's The Visit, Street of Crocodiles, Out of a House Walked a Man, and Lucie Chabrol defined the style visual, physical, ensemble pieces devised by the company. But the mainstay behind all of the considerable creative output, the visionary guiding the voyages of discovery to new theatrical worlds, the imagination that could stimulate the company in devising and to envision a performance in its entirety with the technology that makes the work of Complicité so outstanding in terms of traditional British theatre, that is Simon McBurney. And I'm going to make no bones about it: to my mind McBurney is a genius.

Mnemonic is the production that really exhibits all of McBurney's genial talents. He has got their creativity buzzing in the devising process. He has an over-arching vision, but is admirable in collaboration. And in this production he performs, and as a performer he is superb. His solo prologue to the twin narratives that are interlaced in Mnemonic is utterly compelling in its fun and its profundity, presented as it is by a character so touchingly human, manic with ideas that range from the philosophical to the absurdly mundane. It is an engagingly anarchic rant by a man desperate to communicate his feelings; a man rendered vulnerable because he is unreservedly open to feelings, cultural ponderings and, above all personal memory. A man who cares, and is trying to make sense of experience in a world of forgetting; a world that deprecates the sensual experience in favour of materialism, grabbing the latest gizmo. And how can we be rational beings if we ignore the senses? It is the senses that give our brain the information we need to negotiate survival. This is a man who has no defences except his mind and that mind has lead him into a labyrinth of potential meanings. He makes us laugh, he is endearing, so we are opened up, made ready for further experiences.

This McBurney/prologue persona is the carnivalesque trickster. He entices us into a new dimension of being from which we must emerge transformed by a wealth of experience compressed into the short space of a fictional reality that is all too recognisable in its emotional import. It starts with a clown, our contemporary in his overload of data and confusion, and ends as we leave the auditorium warm in the understanding that the mysteries of the human condition, the sadness, the violence, the loss of identity, the journeys we must make, the historical episodes that shape our identities, are, after all, worthy of recollection and even celebration.

Our prologue fool glides fluidly into the narrative structure as a man whose girlfriend has disappeared. Mnemonics is about memory with all its multifarious ramifications and this lovely, sad man is searching for meanings in their past. Her story is told: she has left to scour Eastern Europe to find the father she didn't know was still alive and in doing so must find herself and lose herself. Juxtaposed and interwoven with this is the forensic tale of the 4,000-year-old man found in the Alps in 1991. As the scientists investigate his corpse, the remnants of clothes, his weapons and tools, the contents of his stomach, they slowly, with considerable (witty and satirical) disagreement, piece together the mystery that led to his death.

This man becomes our Everyman: a minor player overcome by the forces of power, who was overwhelmed and lay down wounded and exhausted in the cold, fearful of pursuit, and died not knowing that it was his destiny to become a celebrity as a freeze-dried mummy in the 20th century. Our Everyman is delivered to us with such tenderness, he is our common ancestor, he is you, he is me. His tale could be my tale and his fate could still be our fate. His slipping into death after considerable struggles against the odds is something we come to admire and fear. With a bit of imaginative extrapolation, in our contemporary world we are still living the life he led.

The narratives might be profound and engaging but it is McBurney's style of theatre, the visual imagery, the sound and lighting effects, the use of video projection, and the beautiful physicality, that draws us in to a common humanity in a performance of stunning imaginative power. And I will go out on a limb here. While we are engaged in a discussion about the demise of politically engaged theatre in Britain, this work is political. There are no overt political references, but it is conjoining us to go on a quest of self-discovery; to see ourselves against the backdrop of the global powers shaping our lives. And, in its style, it is an encouragement to open ourselves up to the senses, to human compassion, understanding. And, as they used to say: 'The personal is political'.

Mnemonic was originally devised for the illustrious Saltzburg Festival in 1999, and has cleaned up on awards throughout Europe and in New York. But a dicky bird told me that McBurney is leaving England's 'green and pleasant land' (or maybe the 'dark satanic mills' of funding bodies) for Paris, like our other theatre alumni Peter Brook and Joan Littlewood before him. Like them he will find there respect and sufficient funding to research and devise. Do we have to lose another genius?

As an end note, I must add that while McBurney is the only actor I've come across since the sixties willing to spend a quarter of the performance stark naked, with that beautiful, physically trained body, his bod doesn't influence my judgement an iota! And if you are going 'methinks the lady doth protest too much' you are wrong. I'm only in love with his imagination.

Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher