Fringe Diary: Physical Education

Written for the London Theatre Blog, 17 August 2008

In 21 years the closest I’ve come to experiencing physical theatre is A Level Theatre Studies and a few ill-informed cracks about interpretive dance. Where better to overcome my ignorance than the Fringe?

I mentioned in Part 3 that The Factory came very highly recommended, so that’s where I started. It’s a comment on consumerism, and especially the control multinationals exercise over their customers through planned obsolescence, set in a dystopian Factory that manufactures everything.

As a sometime theatre technician I found myself astounded by the level of technical competence Precarious demand of their projectionist. The projections are designed to seamlessly complement the company’s performers, so at times their upper bodies are their own while their legs are projected, or the environments with which they interact are entirely composed of projected textures, turning stacks of cardboard boxes into skyscrapers and upturned tables into factory conveyor belts.

Once I’d finished geeking out over the audiovisual magic on display I could start paying attention to the physical theatre I’d come to see. The show is both technically impressive and visually striking. Particularly memorable images include four nude women hanging from their ankles like carcasses in an abattoir and a woman struggling to escape from underneath a womblike bubble of plastic sheeting. There are moments when unnecessary movement seems to have been thrown in to cover stilted dialogue; the company’s strength is clearly in their physical work, and the piece is at its strongest when it eschews dialogue and gives itself over to music, movement and projection.

Having thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle of The Factory I moved on to Everyone We Know, a two-hander on a much smaller scale, both in terms of staging and themes. A devised piece based around the film Me and You and Everyone We Know, it explores love, body image and connections between people, but offers few deep or original insights.

Though billed, like The Factory, as a physical and multimedia piece, Everyone We Know makes no particular statements with either medium. I enjoyed the female performer’s gymnastics near the beginning of the piece, and stacked televisions playing DVDs and streaming live from a camcorder make for some interesting visuals, but neither device sheds much light on the plot or themes and overall fail to bind together into a coherent aesthetic.

Despite all this, it still conspired to leave me unexpectedly uplifted. It is not an accomplished or life-changing piece of theatre, but it is a gentle, unassuming piece with few pretensions, that fosters an intimate, family atmosphere with its audience and is unafraid to provide a crowd-pleasing happy ending. So despite dramaturgical misgivings, my overall impression of Everyone We Know remains glowingly positive.

Finally, to the most fun I’ve had so far this Fringe: Japanese sword performance troupe Kamui’s dance and martial arts spectacular Samurai Spirit. It’s listed in the Fringe brochure under Dance and Physical Theatre, so I justified going as part of my physical performance education, but I’m happy to admit that seeing this show was pure indulgence on my part. Led by Shimaguchi Tetsuro, the man that choreographed Uma Thurman’s swordfights in Kill Bill, the show is a series of stylised sword, spear and quarterstaff battles. Some are more dance than fight scenes, while others, though silent, even come with a plot; the costumes and fighting style progress throughout the hour from feudal-era samurai in kimonos to street samurai in black suits and bandannas. The skill of the performers is breathtaking.

Make no mistake: Samurai Spirit is not high art. It’s aimed squarely at samurai sword fetishists and fans of Kill Bill – it even uses most of the first film’s soundtrack in the final twenty minutes. I want to state categorically that this makes it no less exhilarating to watch, but I tick the above boxes in permanent pen, so I can’t claim impartiality. All I can do is recommend the show to all and sundry and hope everyone enjoys it as much as me.

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