January 21, 2005: Complicite, A Minute Too Late

National Theatre, Lyttelton. Subtitled A civic tragedy of municipal mourning

Complicite is a troupe of three mimes, Jozef Houben, Simon McBurney, and Marcella Magui, who are excellent acrobats as well, and their three quite different body types make them easy to distinguish. They work up their shows themselves along with someone named Annabel Arden. This one ran seventy-five minutes without an interval. It must be like devising choreography or composing music: an hour and fifteen minutes of mime must take months to work out and perfect.

The subject, we are told at the beginning, “is death.” That is the nominal subject and the organizing theme, but the real subject is live people in prepar­ation for death. The mimes’ device is to create a series of situations — the death of a faithless person at a funeral, securing of a death certificate, the delivery of the body to the church, the transport to the grave — that somehow become almost hysterically funny. The process is the same in each case: Set the scene, start the story rolling, invent farcical gaffes that interfere, overcome them, and then allow things to go increasingly out of control, making it possible for every­thing that can go wrong to go disastrously wrong — to the great enjoyment and often hysterical laughter of the audience. It is all very, very funny — until we come to the visit to the grave, which begins as mildly amusing and ends up serious. “I only wanted to say good-bye,” says one of the mimes, at the grave down center stage made at the beginning by dumping a bucket full of dirt on the floor and then squaring it up at the sides. We wait for some­thing funny to happen, but it doesn’t. The three turn their backs on the audience and go quietly away, as the music subsides and the lights slowly dim to black.

This is an unorthodox ending for something that has been so much fun, but we rouse ourselves and give these actors munificent applause, relieving our­selves perhaps of any tendency to become morbidly preoc­cupied with the announced subject. We would really just rather not think about it, after all.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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