Saturday, October 21, 2017

Celui Qui Tombe (He Who Falls) - a physical theatre treat and allegory for our time #belfest

There’s a chance I may run out of superlatives in this review.

Every now and again a show comes along that exceeds expectations, even though it has been built up as spectacular by everyone who has mentioned it in the months prior to seeing it.

Celui Qui Tombe (He Who Falls) is perhaps the most unexpected and magnificent piece of theatre I’ve seen in a long, long time. If it even is theatre. Part circus, part dance, part narrative, the cast show off their gymnastic, athletic, choral and acting ability over the 60 minute piece of awesome physical theatre.

The safety curtain in the Grand Opera House rose and in the gloom behind a rectangular wooden platform descended. As it gently tipped forward, six people could be discerned. The platform was suspended on steel cable from four winches high up in the custom lighting rig above the stage.

The platform tipped further forward and some of the figures struggled to keep a grip and began to slide down the wooden structure. Beethoven blasted out, creating a sense of calm amongst the chaotic scene.

When the magic carpet reached the level of the ground, the music stopped, the cast froze, and a man with a limp walked forward from his control desk at the back to the stage and nonchalantly released the cables.

Soon the platform began to spin anticlockwise and the three women and three men had to adapt to the centrifugal force that threatened to push them off the platform. At first we saw them ‘learning’ to lean in towards the middle. Then they crowded in and huddled up as a bunch, before experimenting with moving across the centre of the platform.

Before long the platform and the performers was spinning in the other direction – in the Q&A afterwards, the cast admitted that some nights dizziness is harder to avoid than others – before the they had to delicately balance on its centre point and the cast began to drop on to the floor, swing from it and dodge it as it flew from side to side across the otherwise set-free stage.

Each new scene challenged the cast and surprised the audience. Frank Sinatra’s I’ll Do It My Way blasted out while the figures on stage were learning that cooperation was vital to their survival. Partnerships were formed and then cruelly split apart by other people crashing through their embraces.

There was love and affection. There was cause and effect. A rogue exploration of the other side of the platform could literally tip and balance and jeopardise the stability of the five others. Sometimes the hazard could be ducked and dodged, other times the characters had to go with the flow or hang on for dear life.

Perhaps the most magical moment comes when the backing music is ditched and the cast begin to sing while a couple dangle beneath the raised platform and others stand on top. A genius moment to sing a madrigal with the high soprano notes flying over the deeper male voices.

Director and designer Yoann Bourgeois says that the six performers are “a kind of mankind in miniature ... they react to the physical constraints without initiating movement themselves, and it’s from this tussle between their mass and force that the situation is born”.

It was understandable when the audience gasped as bodies seemed to be helplessly sliding towards the edge of the platform. Less understandable when people talked loudly about what they were seeing and let their mobile phone ringtones compete with the official accompaniment. And then there were the latecomers, fifteen minutes after the show began and the unstoppable urge of some to hold up their phones to film the spectacle.

Celui Qui Tombe is produced by Centre Chorégraphique National de Grenoble in France. The effortless sliding, running, falling and hanging was all the more amazing given the admission that this two night run as part of Belfast International Arts Festival were the first shows for two of the six performers.

In a political situation that is locally dominated by an uncertain stalemate, nationally overshadowed by the unknown variables of Brexit, and internationally overshadowed by tension between the US and North Korea and global terrorism, Celui Qui Tombe illustrates how hard it is to keep control and how much easier it is if we work together.

A physical theatre allegory for our time. Jump at any chance you have to see this show in the future.

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Belfast International Arts Festival runs until 28 October. Poppies: Weeping Window outside the Ulster Museum are well worth a visit, and a series of talks about WW1 and the theme of remembrance continue after the festival closes. The powerful Gardens Speak experience closes on Sunday 22 October.

Rosemary Jenkinson’s new play Lives in Translation opens in the old B&Q store on Boucher Road next week, while Owen McCafferty’s Fire Below (War on Words) continues its run in the Lyric Theatre and they’re still Dancing at the Disco at the End of the World in Riddel’s Warehouse.

Meanwhile the programme of talks continues, with In Praise of Forgetting on Thursday evening with David Reiff.

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