Riotous Company is really interesting, as its post-show talk revealed. It has provocative and original thoughts about the purpose and power of theatre, and it’s created some incredibly ambitious pieces. Artistic Director Mia Theil Have, who plays one of the ‘two girls’ in Insomnia – a pas de deux drama for two girls and a piano man, has worked in Denmark, Cuba and Nepal, and recently directed a piece for the Freedom Theatre in Palestine. Another founding member, Nikola Kodjabashia, the company’s musical director and the performance’s ‘piano man’, is a well-respected Eastern European avant-garde composer. In conversation, Thiel Have radiated passion and pride in the projects she described, while Kodjabashia’s self-aware, grumpy recalcitrance was very funny. It’s a shame, then, that Insomnia is neither as profound nor as comic as its creators would have it.
The piece eschews a linear story, although it could be seen as lots of mini-stories, as the two girls (Theil Have and Irene Cioni) move around the bare stage, following – or maybe influencing – the piano man’s music. They play-fight, dance, pretend to be angry with each other, tie themselves together with the ropes they use as belts. It often appears quite childish. The movements they repeatedly use, curling into balls or swirling the ropes around like lassoes, conjure up childhood games, and there is a feeling of innocence around the whole piece. With no sustained narrative, every conflict evaporates as quickly as a child’s grudge, and Kodjabashia’s music is very good at unobtrusively assisting the rippling flow of the piece, with some really lovely melodies. These moments of transition are some of the best moments of the performance; my favourite came when the two women jumped off their chairs and began to stalk across the stage, holding their rope belts like bows and arrows, as the music immediately grew darker and more urgent.
When the ideas were good, they were effective, and Tage Larsen’s direction was constantly inventive. But the element of childishness sometimes looked a bit – fatal criticism – GCSE, and there were times when Insomnia came across as little more than a sustained drama game. Neither Thiel Have nor Cioni are great comic actors, and their attempts at physical comedy felt slightly strained and faintly embarrassing. Afterwards, Thiel Have herself admitted that she isn’t a dancer, and although she was by no means awful, in a space as dark and close as Park 90, in a piece with so few words, small failures of strength and grace are amplified.
In a couple of the scenarios, Cioni and Thiel Have roar phrases in distorted Italian and Danish. Cioni said that she wanted to scream, to vent a raw emotion, in the piece. These strange speeches were the result of discussion with Larsen over the best way to do this theatrically. But the audience is unprepared for them after a mostly silent performance, and the words sound like awkward gibberish in the bare concrete space. It’s another instance of the production’s recurring problem: a bold idea that doesn’t take flight.
Insomnia played at the Park Theatre. Photo by Simon Daniel Minett.