Every artist craves beauty. Every artist is by necessity a fantasist. But in Ailin Conant’s moving production at the Blue Elephant Theatre fantasies become mental invasions, dreams end up owning the mind that dreamt them, and the quest for beauty leads a woman into rather than around the chasm in front of her.
Louise (Julia Yevnine), the artistic protagonist of Theatre Témoin’s The Fantasist, is kept awake at night by her desire to create something beautiful as she lurches between the emotional extremes of bipolar disorder. The company presents a blend of object manipulation, puppetry and mime in which almost every object on stage comes alive and interacts with Louise as she descends further into the recesses of her tormented mind.
Whilst there is a lot of dialogue in The Fantasist, the most moving and revealing scenes are silent. Témoin belongs to the school of Jacques Lecoq, whose method involves performers developing their bodies as instruments of poetry, trained in the use of masks, movement and gesture. It shows. Both the set and the lighting design support this performance style in their basic simplicity: there is nothing to distract from the objects and bodies on stage, and it is this meeting of object and human, this interaction of puppet with person, where The Fantasist takes flight above the standard suffering artist story.
Julia Correa and Catherine Gerrard are the hands behind the heads, perfectly in tune not only with the puppets but with each other, breathing charm and elegance into cloth and wood, particularly in the Blue Man, who is both Louise’s muse and her tormenter, formed from a coat in her Caligarian cupboard. The Blue Man is at once suave and sinister, managing to be attractive and threatening without speech, testament to the skill of the puppeteers.
Particularly impressive in all the puppets was the accuracy of their sightlines, even with the eyeless creatures. The direction of their gazes, controlled by the angles and subtle tilts of their heads, always made it perfectly clear what they were looking at and how they were thinking, making for a remarkable watch and cementing the reality for Louise of these figments of her imagination.
If I had to quibble about any element of The Fantasist, it would be Louise’s switch into French when experiencing elation or distress. As a non-French speaker I felt that my connection with her was being severed at crucial moments, excluding me from her world. Possibly this was a deliberate move for a character circling the plug hole of sanity and cut off from the real world by her fantasies, but I felt it only served to alienate.
From the strong cast of three springs a world of many, and it is impossible not to be swept up in the imagery they create with the simplest of objects. The environment created by the company draws you into a Jim Henson style world that is at times charming, at others repellent, but always immensely watchable.
The Fantasist is playing at the Blue Elephant Theatre until 17 March. For more information and tickets, see the Blue Elephant Theatre’s website. Photography by Dougie Firth.