It’s a mark of just how eccentric and beguiling these two short theatre pieces are that, en route home, I saw an empty plastic bag rolling around a doorway and thought: “You could be in a show.” The work of French artist Phia Ménard and her Compagnie Non Nova, they open this year’s London International Mime Festival with a pleasing mix of simplicity and ingenuity.
In L’Après-Midi d’un Foehn, Ménard takes the humble plastic bag, scourge of our age, and turns it into a magical performer. On a circular stage, enclosed by a ring of electric fans, a silent woman constructs a small humanoid from two pink plastic bags and places it centre stage. The fans gradually whir into action, gently breathing life into the little figure. It bulges, twitches, then, to the opening bars of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, begins to pirouette. Before long, it is joined by dozens of others, skating, soaring and swooping about the stage.
Ingeniously, the precise alignment of the fans and the varied strength of current (designed by Pierre Blanchet) enable Ménard to choreograph this unconventional dance company with astonishing precision. They match the music, flock to cluster together in an upturned umbrella or settle one by one like birds on the arm of the performer (Cécile Briand), who stalks the stage magisterially in a long black robe, like a sorcerer. For small audience members (the show is recommended for anyone over five) it makes a neat combination of magic and physics.
There’s a narrative of sorts about freedom and threat. Meanwhile the contrast between these man-made objects made animate and the soundtrack, which combines Debussy’s mysterious music with the sounds of the forest, prompts reflections on the gap between urban life and nature.
Meaning is foregrounded more in Vortex, the darker show (for over-15s only) performed by Ménard herself. Beginning in similar fashion, the piece soon twists into something more sinister, as a giant, bulky figure tramples the airborne plastic bags. But then the figure itself begins to transform, wriggling free of one skin, pulling a dark snake from its innards, gradually stripping back until near naked. The message, that we hide our true selves beneath layers, is rather strenuously made, but, again using wind judiciously, Ménard and her dramaturge Jean-Luc Beaujault create remarkable images: at one point she is pursued round the stage by the giant black phantom of her earlier self. A little long-winded, but extraordinary nonetheless.