Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Du Goudron et Des Plumes, Barbican Centre

Review: Du Goudron et Des Plumes, Barbican Centre

At base, what else are we but self-conscious beings clinging onto a chunk of matter as it hurtles through space?

Theatre regularly reflects our own insignificance back at us, but it’s rare for a piece to zoom out as far and as successfully as this beautiful and rigorous circus piece from Compagnie MPTA and Mathurin Boize. Somehow Du Goudron et Des Plumes manages to make frankness oddly comforting, allowing us to share in mutual frailty and failure. It takes you by the hand, sits you down and whispers existential horrors in your ears, not to fright, but to reassure. In spite of the increasing chaos onstage, Du Goudron et Des Plumes is a soothing watch, almost hypnotic in its grace.

At last year’s festival, Zimmermann & De Perrot placed a block-coloured circus on a pivoting, see-saw stage in Oper Opis. Compagnie MPTA take that far further with extrapolated returns, using a suspended square platform as their multi-functional apparatus. It’s like a Swiss Army stage: a robust piece of equipment that allows circus to be seamlessly integrated into action, to the extent that choreography disappears and conceit is subsumed. The focus is never on individual tricks, but the combinations of movement. Lines and diagonals, rhythms and tempos, parallels and oppositions blur together like a magic eye in motion.

It is, in no uncertain terms, mesmerising. You get caught up in the relational movement of both platform and performers. Sometimes they swing together, sometimes in opposition. In one spectacularly simple sequence, the cast plant their feet on the stage and stand still to give the impression of a world whizzing effortlessly around them.

In fact, impressions are everywhere. This is a show that sends your mind freewheeling with associations. The platform variously suggests a raft, a floating island, a drunken meteor, a stage in orbit and the earth itself. Ideas as complex and far-reaching as relativity and Plato’s cave pop into view like bursting bubbles.

Its best sequences come when it splits into above and below, echoing actions on two levels like the University Challenge split screen. One often thinks in terms of realms. Below is blanched with harsh white lights, an interrogation chamber, urban and cold; while above is dreamy and summery, rural and calm. At one point the whole appears a landscape reflected in a still pool, with figures hanging from their feet directly beneath their counterparts. I was reminded of Calvino’s City of the Dead, in which corpses are placed in an underground mausoleum to create a lifeless mirror of the living city above.

With its constant oppositions, peace and violence spun together, chaos and stability, Du Goudron et Des Plumes lulls and disturbs in equal measure. Humanity has rarely looked so small nor life so precarious and yet so worthwhile and impressive.

Photograph: Christophe Raynaud de Lage

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