The Blue Elephant Theatre is starting to make a name for itself, with a brilliant selection of theatre, dance and comedy. On the agenda was a double bill by theatre company Lumenis, who have a history of provocative new work, so it was with some excitement that I made my way to Camberwell last Thursday.
First up was Casa, a dance piece about individuality and identity. The first ten minutes were slow – painfully slow. It began in the bar area, and left the audience confused as to whether or not we were supposed to follow the cast into the theatre. Thankfully, after an awkward few minutes the stewards ushered us into the space. A man then ran onto stage and produced a green afro wig from the crotch of his trousers. A woman fought to shrug off her coat. A girl paced the same path, gradually shedding items of clothing into a corner.
Thankfully this was not indicative of the rest of the piece, which quickly impressed once substantial dancing began. The choreography by Annarita Mazzilli was beautiful, using large heavy coats as props and sometimes as extensions of the dancer’s bodies. A single cello provided music for the dancers and was incorporated into one particularly touching piece where the musician appeared to play music based on the dancer’s movements. Another piece helped the green afro to redeem itself, being the central prop in a sweet duet examining flirtation between two new lovers.
While not perfect, this was a wonderfully engrossing piece and there were enough later surprises to compensate for the poor opening. I think the only way to sum it up would be ‘charming’.
After the interval we enter a changed space, populated by nothing but chairs, dustsheets and a motionless figure dressed in a patchwork jumpsuit, face covered in white clown makeup.
This is Magical Chairs, which introduces itself with a voiceover announcing that there are over 143 million abandoned chairs in the world and has a set constructed entirely of chairs. So, what could the play be about? Well I’ll tell you one thing – it’s not about chairs. Put simply, they are an allegory for lost children, the ones who are abandoned, neglected and abused.
Two central characters – a magician and his assistant – act out the last night they will have to spend in this place, full of abandoned chairs. They argue and fight over a magic trick, in the process revealing something of themselves. Between each scene is an interlude featuring the third actor – otherwise always motionless in the chair. Played by Lotan Saphir to great effect, this character moves to the accompaniment of a voiceover detailing statistics of missing chairs. She is utterly watchable, manipulating not only her body but her face in a series of unthinkable movements. It is genuinely worth sitting through this play to watch her short bursts of brilliance, given only stereotypically childish things to work with such as thumb sucking and tantrums. It is almost as if the actors are caricatures of stroppy kids, and over time it becomes incredibly grating. Because the actors are not convincing enough to persuade us to suspend our disbelief, the play’s climax and reveal pack little emotional punch. I am very aware that I’m being addressed by a grown woman, and as a character I feel I know little of, a woman I don’t particularly care about.
The problem with this play seems to be that it is trying to be a lot cleverer than it needs to be. Sometimes when you try to become too abstract you lose anything human and touching about the events you see performed. It is both over and under thought in different areas, but with a strong central idea this could evolve to be effective in the future.