Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Pan-Pot, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Review: Pan-Pot, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Published on Culture Wars, 28.01.2010

The festival brochure has already described Pan-Pot as “a fireworks display of brilliant juggling.” There’s not much more one can add to that. It has the sort of beauty found in the recent Sony adverts; the same ability to astonish and seduce your eyes to the point of melting. Add in the fact of its liveness and the feat becomes so impressive it leaves you incredulous.

The stage is bare: interlocking wooden slats lit in heavy autumnal colours. Sometimes portions of it are left in darkness, sometimes not. To the side is a grand piano. On the stage, in various combinations and formations, are three dark-suited men. If one can identify any expression on their faces beyond blank neutrality, it might be described as blasé or hangdog. Maybe it’s worse than that: boredom; empty stares that let slip utter disinterest; unimpressed and hollow.

Perhaps this explains the Beckettian overtones. The three men seem, quite ridiculously, to be passing time, filling it with juggling for want of anything more (or less) meaningful. Often, they seem like abstracts, lacking individual characteristics but standing in for all of us, in the same way that Beckett’s beings can. When they turn to face upstage, we see three suits – each catching the light identically – with elbows flickering smoothly, such that white balls loop, whir and whizz between them unthinkingly. They stare straight ahead, as if they are overlooking a landscape; simultaneously seers and fools on a hill.

As for their juggling itself, it embodies the governing qualities of Kantian aesthetics, welding together the sublime and the ridiculous.

Each routine starts from a sliver of something – a ball caught and received in such and such a way – and grows outwards in complexity, such that the pattern transforms, picking up minor mutations as it rolls on. They clacker through with speed and agility, drilled with mechanical precision. At times you can’t be sure whether they are moving into catching positions or simply located by chance, such is the constant whir of reformation. It has that same transfixing blur of a Rubik’s Cube solved at full pelt. Your eyes are always playing catch up and can’t be removed for even a nanosecond.

As for the ridiculous, there is always a glint in the eye and a flicker of mischief lurking in Pan-Pot. Its comic edge has a certain purity, relying on rhythm, routine and unexpected variations. A throws to B, B throws to C, C turns and flings the ball into the wings. Or let’s it fall. Or just stares back. These three men are a clownish clash of pomposity and futility. They bestow their ball-handling with import: there’s the focus, the courtly bows, the churchly echo of clicking heels and, most of all, the concerted effort not to drop anything. Then they let it slip, as a ball thuds to the stage. And they stare. And they start again. Add in a couple of similarly suited manikins, who stand always ready to receive and always untrusted, and the inexplicably innate humour of gravity and Pan Pot can really raise a titter.

But it’s not content to do so alone. What makes Pan-Pot so impressive – what draws the ongoing, animal applause from us – is its half-concealed philosophy. It speaks of time and failure, of attempted poise and gracelessness, of humanity and the oddity of its existence. With balls. Lots of them and very little else.

 

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