A museum where the pictures keep mysteriously changing until they are all identical; a printed diagram of a heart which spouts real blood; a young woman whose birth screams segue straight into a blues rock song called “Cry Baby”; a desultory seventh birthday party for a girl who has spent her entire life in an incubator; a woman singing a torch song to a recalcitrant coffee vending machine which then electrocutes her. These are some of the highlights of Moeder (Mother) with which I found myself involved last week at the Barbican.
Anyone who followed my previous blog Notes from the Bottom will know that this is not the first time I have found myself onstage at this prestigious venue. However when I went through the stage door for the last time twenty months previously I assumed that that would be it as far as my professional stage career went (that’s the stage being professional – I would never make such exaggerated claims!). And then a couple of months ago a call went out for some stage extras “of a certain age” to take part in a production by the renowned – they won an Olivier Award in 2015 – Belgian physical theatre company, Peeping Tom (Sorry if you’ve read this far expecting something more racy based on the title!). This was to be part of the London International Mime Festival in early 2018. Well I thought about it for about three seconds but the lure of going back to an old haunt to relieve some cherished memories proved irresistible and I applied.
A couple of weeks ago my participation was confirmed along with that of my theatrical colleague David Taylor. David had been our local director for the Midsummer Night’s Dream project with the Royal Shakespeare Company and I had always felt just a little guilty that the rest of the team and I had the joy of getting on stage while David had not had that pleasure. So it was good to know that this situation would finally be remedied and that he could get to feel what it was like to be facing an audience in such a vast arena.
I wasn’t really sure what I was letting myself in for and the notion of physical theatre and mime were somewhat scary. But if I had learned anything from the RSC project it was to step up to a challenge and face it head on. I thought some research might prove enlightening; however, the Barbican’s own description of the piece on its website probably raised more questions than it gave answers:
Peeping Tom evoke a dreamlike universe, at once disturbing and oddly humorous. A production of astonishing physicality that defies characterisation. This non-narrative work draws on the memories of director Gabriela Carrizo and her performers to trigger disquieting reflections about motherhood. Suffering, desire, fear, life and death are unexpectedly intertwined. The soundscape has a cinematic quality, sometimes amplified to disconcerting effect. It is matched by surreal visual imagery and choreography of rare imagination where bodies bend, flip, isolate and contort.
As I was to discover, they sure got that right! Snippets and extracts of the company’s work on You Tube and pictures on their own website (www.peepingtom.be/en/) confirmed the enigmatic nature of their work. I did discover that Moeder is the middle part of a planned trilogy, that the company had already devised and performed Vader (Father) and that the final instalment, scheduled to be premiered, in 2019 will be Kind (Child). Beyond that I was pretty much in the dark about the work and what would be expected of us extras – or as we were rather more ostentatiously being called, supernumeraries.
So it was that last Wednesday afternoon I found myself once more signing in at the stage door of the Barbican. This unleashed a flood of happy memories of my time there in 2016; in a sense it was a bit like going home. As well as David there were three other mature participants equally unsure of what was to come as well as young Chloe and her chaperone. Eliza from the Barbican production team and Lulu, Peeping Tom’s tour manager, greeted us and took us up to the dressing rooms – a very familiar location- and then we went onstage (another lump in the throat moment) and met director/choreographer Gabriela Carrizo who gave us a bit more information about our appearances in the show. We were first to follow the funeral cortege of the mother figure (the piece starts with her demise) and then become visitors to the museum where the majority of the action takes place. Costumes were then selected – these were quite plain and neutral – and after some sound check work a run through began.
Given that the first performance was scheduled that evening it was a steep learning curve but Lulu was constantly present to give us cues and remind us of what to do and when and so it flowed reasonably smoothly. Actually a lot of it was about maintaining a blank expression and keeping very still – in marked contrast to the eight main company members who couldn’t have been more animated if they tried. They were, of course, very well seasoned in what they were doing; it transpired that they had already performed the piece 83 times in their native Belgium and elsewhere globally. And they certainly needed to be slick, coping with multiple costume changes, timing moves to a constantly changing soundtrack which was enhanced by Foley techniques (named after sound-effects artist Jack Foley, this is the reproduction of everyday sound effects that are added to enhance audio quality), and adding some incredible vocal contributions of their own. In one particularly harrowing sequence the mother appears carrying the supine body of a child and ululating (sorry, it’s the only word that will do) like a thing possessed. I didn’t know a human being was capable of such a sound and even now I’m haunted by it. If that makes the piece seem like a doom laden tragedy throughout then that is far from the truth. The actors had a fine line in deadpan delivery that was, at times, truly hilarious and the more surreal aspects wouldn’t have been out of place in a sketch by Spike Milligan crossed with a painting by Rene Magritte – I presume the repeated appearance of a tuba onstage was an homage to the Belgian master of the absurd.
In fact the varied nature of the work – intense, raw and savage one moment and playful, whimsical and quirky the next all added to the rich texture which was created. It was the sort of piece which revealed more of itself every time we watched as we extras supernumeraries did from the wings each performance. My admiration for the performers grew with repeat viewings not least for the almost extraordinary physical contortions that they were able to deploy to twist themselves into unworldly shapes. That said I’d still be hard pressed to say what it all finally meant. Perhaps you can decide for yourself by watching this video which seeks to give a flavour of what certainly ranks as one of the most extraordinary experiences of my acting life.