Everybody loves the circus. I for one retain the memory of the first time, at aged seven, that I was introduced to this most colourful and chaotic of art forms: crammed amidst the throng of spectators, jostling children and impassive parents, I remember with particular clarity that mixture of gaudy spectacle, gravity defying athleticism and shameless showboating. It was a memory that I found myself harking back to during The Mill, Ockham Razors new physical theatre piece exploring the rituals and patterns of physical labour. However, you’d be hard pressed to detect the obvious signs of those familiar tropes in this surprisingly restrained performance. Instead, The Mill cleverly exploits these conventions of circus and incorporates them into something that, while often physically exhilarating and viscerally entertaining, is surprisingly gentle and philosophical in tone.
The Mill follows the five-strong work force whose sole purpose in the play is the continuation of the factory programme (or ‘mill’ of the title) that they work in. Occupying a large suspended hamster ball, a number of wheels and a network of ropes, the group formulate a number of systems for which to carry out their exhaustive tasks. The performers actions are integrated into the overall design of the mill, until the system begins to break down and the group rebel in dizzying style against the programmatic limitations of the factory.
Entering the auditorium, the atmosphere of an oppressive factory environment was rendered apparent by the overwhelming wall of smoke that flooded the stage. Similarly, the distant rumbles of pistons, steam and steel clattering of tools evoked the sense of sweat and toil. My immediate expectations given this pre-show set-up were more in line with the dystopian visions of mass labour found in the film Metropolis, but these were soon subverted when the lights finally came up on the action. The design of this world, rather than creating the sweat and grime of harsh modernity, was startlingly organic in its presentation. The wooden wheels, rope pulleys, pastel uniforms and warm lighting of the mise-en-scene, transposed one not to the automated arena of the modern factory, but to the human-labour of the workshop. We soon discover that for the characters, this inverse promises no richer an existence: instead of the presence of machines that think and work in place of humans, it is the humans that are forced into a position of machine-like subservience to the apparatus of the mill, themselves becoming cogs in a far more elaborate structure.
The characters’ begrudging adherence to the rules and regulations of their work dominate the first half of The Mill. While performances’ outside of the physical arena are limited, the performers do a great job of establishing the hierarchies and rivalries between their characters through their sophisticated range of gestural styles and sharp comic timing. It isn’t until the second half however, when one by one each of the five workers dissents against this ritual, that the action is allowed to take on new kinetic heights and test the physical range of the performers acrobatic abilities. At one point, one of the workers begins an impromptu trapeze act across one of the ropes, much to the ire of his work leader, whose attempts to imbalance the would-be rebel by spinning the central wheel at dizzying speeds calls into direct tension the balance between order and chaos. It’s a subtle example, early in The Mill, of the emerging rebellion that will later galvanise the workers into larger and more spectacular acts of disruption. This latter development reaches its peak, when one after the other, the workers converges with frenzied glee on the central hamster wheel. Dangling in symmetrical formation from its spinning surface, the wheel is propelled onwards as the performers scream with anarchic joy like children on a rollercoaster. What The Mill manages to achieve with a stupendous display of ease and fluidity, is the creation of new systems out of the seeming disorder that the characters affect through their physical performances. It is the fusing of circus and adept physical choreography that leads to the pieces richness and visual beauty.
For a performance that synthesises the conventions of circus and relishes in the physical athleticism and anarchy of its characters, The Mill is a surprisingly understated performance. Besides being visually entertaining and viscerally affecting, there is something oddly haunting in the Beckettian world that Ockham’s Razor have created. At no point do we learn of the exact purpose of their constant work, no end product is ever revealed to us, and the endless ritual of the action creates the impression of a world that is limbo-like in it’s conception. Whatever vague philosophical import can be gleaned from this strange and interesting production, Ockham’s Razor have created something beautifully constructed and highly entertaining. A thinking mans circus.
For more information on Ockham’s Razor’s shows, see their website here.