After 47 appearances, the London international mime festival is taking its final bow as a large-scale, multi-venue extravaganza. From now on, physical and visual theatre productions under its umbrella will appear at venues around the UK throughout the year. Why the change? No reason has been given. The festival’s current directors, Helen Lannaghan and Joseph Seelig, simply say that future plans will be announced on the website “in due course”.
Festival stalwart David Glass and his ensemble embody, in some respects, the ethos of the event: international, inclusive, innovative. This year, in collaboration with the Italian company Topi Dalmata, led by Margherita Fusi and Silvia Bruni, he presents The Brides.
Over 70-plus minutes, seven brides in white gowns are marshalled around the stage by a duenna-like creature dressed in a black, hooped skirt and long, black veil (François Testory). A soundtrack jump-cuts jaggedly between a variety of pop and classical numbers. Storytelling, usually a strong aspect of Glass’s work, is here weak. The brides function mostly in chorus formation, striking attitudes that evoke classical statuary, or bouncing around with animalistic abandon, grunting the while.
The festival has been catalyst for much of what is exciting and challenging in British theatre today
At one point they take turns to mount a chair and mime having sex, or so it seems; elsewhere, they fight and pull one another’s hair (from head and pubis). These overblown, overlong episodes threaten to stifle moments of wit and humour (deft use of a picture frame as if it were a camera enclosing Hitchcock-style melodramatic scenes is one).
The programme tells us that “overseen by the Death Bride [Testory]” they pass through “the spring, summer, autumn and winter of their lives [and] await a Groom, who may never come”. The impression that these “brides” need a male figure to achieve completion is communicated all too powerfully, shattering Glass’s stated aim “to empower and support female voices”.
When it started in 1977, the London international mime festival was intended as one-off showcase for non-text-based theatre. A catalyst for much of what is exciting and challenging in British theatre today, it has placed diversity and innovation at its core from the start, with British companies such as Three Women, Black Mime Theatre and the British National Theatre of the Deaf appearing alongside companies from Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia (as was), India, Japan, Switzerland and more. Complicité (then called Théâtre de Complicité) presented its first show, Put It on Your Head, at the festival in 1984, while, in 1987, Kneehigh came up from Cornwall to make its London debut with Fool’s Paradise.
Workshops have been another significant component of the festival’s programme, bringing together audiences and artists to explore forms presented on the stage, and to learn from some of the greatest names in physical theatre (Jacques Lecoq among them). When the work is fragmented and diffused, this great mixing and mingling and sharing of ideas will be lost. That is a loss to us all.