Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Hans Was Heiri, Barbican Centre

Review: Hans Was Heiri, Barbican Centre

Published on Culture Wars, 29.01.2013

Prolonged exposure to Hans Was Heiri may very well have permanent side-effects. It’s liable to send you cross-eyed and muddle your brain like a Rubik’s Cube. Not because it contains the sort of riddling abstractions and mental gymnastics that crumple brows into strained furrows, but rather because it moves, throbs, twists and swings in such a way that, like a hypnotist’s pocketwatch or an optical illusion, bit by bit, it turns your mind to mulch.

That’s not to say that it’s purely and pristinely entrancing. At it’s heart is a giddy delirium; a mix of screwball clowning – some might find it’s hipster goofery irritating beyond measure – and swirling movement. This is tipsy, trippy, dizzying stuff; a gloriously discombobulating headswim. It’s like overdosing on popping candy.

At it’s centre, is a four-square grid that revolves like a windmill. It reads as a featureless doll’s house; each square a room; two up, two down. Some have fixed-down furniture – a table and chair – and performers can slip easily from one to the next or, indeed, out the back through Cluedo-esque tunnels. As it turns like Mondrian’s washing-machine, performers within must handle its spin-cycle. Here, they lean, flexing their ankles to acute angles in order to remain vertical. There, they tumble, clattering into floors that have become walls. Elsewhere, they leap and swing with grace, or slowly step from wall to wall, lithely negotiating its obstacles in motion.

But what’s astounding here is the sense of composition. Hans Was Heiri is jam-packed with material. First, individual routines seem to happen at double-speed, almost as if stop-motion in action. Second, three of four of them will happen at once. So, for intstance, two clowns might bicker and chase each other around the stage, while a contortionist twists herself in and out of a wooden box and, behind, a woman sits at a table, unflinching, as the grid-house turns full-circle. Her hair swishes around and around. In front, another man just sits. Lost in thought. It’s theatre as abstract painting; components interact with and distort one another.

What is it Jacques Lecoq said? Tout bouge. Everything moves. Nothing here is solid. Nothing is grounded. Everything is askew. Turvy-topsy. Up is every which way at once, as if Escher had tried his hand at cubism. Clashing rhythms contradict one another, like a roomful of out-of-sync pendulums. People concertina and inflate. They cartwheel and corkscrew and grow extra heads when you’re looking away. They fit inside one another like Russian Dolls.

And your eyes start to spin in opposite directions and the two sides of your brain declare independence. Your stomach-juices start to swoosh from side to side and your brain starts to fizz. You grow light as a helium balloon and feel yourself floating out of your seat, up into the lighting rig. And that candy-floss giddiness makes the giggles double back on themselves, much as altitude exacerbates alcohol. All the while, Dimitri de Perrot’s live DJ-ed score throbs and thumps, bouncing between your ears, until your head follows suit.

There are some simply gorgeous sequences within, often when the whole opens up into a still, calm pause. Moments of synchronicity let the piece breathe. De Perrot balances a chair on a turntable. Gael Santisteva caught by the turn and hoisted unwittingly into the air. Or, best of all, the statuesque Melissa Von Vepy’s gorgeous aerial routine, in which she coils herself handsomely around the grid’s frame.

Yet, there are also indulgent lulls that add next to nothing. Sketches given stage-time to themselves – a wacky yoga class and other clowning routines – that break the swirl and so seem flat by comparison. The trouble, ultimately, is that meaning never reaches beyond this vaguely existential, vaguely Kafkaesque nonsense, so such interludes cannot move anything forward. Zimmermann and de Perrot’s programme note posits the whole as a celebration of individuality in shared qualities. That makes sense, but it’s nowhere near pinned down in practice.

But no matter. When Hans Was Heiri goes at full tilt, it is pure bliss. I can’t remember a show I was just so happy to be watching for a very long time.

Photograph: Mario Del Curto

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