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Down in the vaults below Waterloo station, where the darkness is punctuated by the roar of trains passing overhead, something is stirring. Happily for theatre fans, I’m not talking about the birth of some subterranean Frankenstein’s monster: instead it’s the triumphant takeover of this most unusual performance space by the Mimetic Festival. Over the course of a fortnight, The Vaults have played host to a dazzling array of physical theatre, puppets and cabaret singers from all over the world. I was lucky enough to catch two of the shows on offer (First Draft and How A Man Crumbled) and there’s plenty more to suit all tastes, from mime to pop-up drag acts and everything in between. Mime tends to have a bit of a bad reputation, as an art form that almost invites ridicule through its reliance on exaggeration and hyper-expressive physicality, but put aside your prejudices and you’ll be rewarded with some startlingly thoughtful and effective theatre.
There’s certainly room for big ideas at the Mimetic Festival: a quick glance at the event calendar throws up tales of imaginary friends and childhood loneliness (Nothing to See Here), a story of a distanced father’s inner turmoil (I Am Beast) and even a History of Everything from We Made This Productions.
My first experience of the festival was courtesy of the Canadian company Open Heart Surgery Theatre, in the form of Charlotte Baseley and Louise Callaghan. Splitting an hour’s worth of characters between the two of them, Baseley and Callaghan played out a yearning yarn built on post-apocalyptic anxiety. Made up of philosophical musings interspersed with brilliantly choreographed dance and physical theatre, First Draft was inspired by E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops and cleverly used the enclosed space to stand in for a “protection unit far away from the Earth’s surface”, where the remnants of mankind sheltered from some sort of terrible disaster and collected memories of life as it used to be. The piece began strongly with some intriguing dance work set to Sufjan Stevens’ “Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”, the perfect choice of song for a play that revelled in the off-kilter and eerie. In fact, the two performers seemed most comfortable with the parts of the piece that relied on physical theatre, despite some confident adoption of various accents throughout, and consequently I found myself engaging more in sections with minimal dialogue. Having said that, there were some poetic descriptions of stars and sky thrown in, and amusing snippets of recognisable contemporary existence – particularly a note-perfect imitation of a Starbucks barista.
It was just a shame that the near-constant accompaniment of trains above the theatre didn’t blend well with a piece that depended on still, silent moments of contemplation – unlike the more raucous atmosphere of Clout Theatre’s How A Man Crumbled. It helped that Clout Theatre had wisely incorporated an act (or “chapter”) of their play which took place in a noisy train carriage, and that the actors seemed more accustomed to performing in such an unconventional place. For the majority of its run-time, How A Man Crumbled – a wacky journey into the world of “the Russian poet, iconoclast and false moustache wearer Daniil Kharms” – was so frenetically paced that I barely even noticed those pesky trains. This piece, too, included a great deal of character-swapping on the part of its three energetic actors, whose glorious gurning and leaping about was enough to leave any audience member reeling. An ever-escalating series of crazy events loosely tied together by the narrative of Kharms’ The Old Woman (recently performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe at the Manchester International Festival) but resisting anything approaching ordinary storytelling every step of the way, this was a hilarious, utterly absurd spectacle. I was particularly impressed by the conjuring of a humanoid creature from crumpled pieces of paper, and the use of projected subtitles was reminiscent of 1927’s work, especially their recent The Animals and Children Took to the Streets. The actors’ skill and commitment in clowning around helped How A Man Crumbled feel more cohesive and well-oiled than First Draft, but both companies are to be applauded for demonstrating the boundless possibilities afforded by physical theatre, from a touchingly melancholy quest for freedom to a world of comedic murder and dancing old ladies.