Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Anatomia Publica, Barbican Centre

Review: Anatomia Publica, Barbican Centre

An edited version of this was published in The Telegraph, 21.01.2014

When Tomeo Vergés’ grandfather went off to war, he left his wife behind. Years later he returns, having been presumed dead, to find her happily remarried. So began an unconventional arrangement: the three of them lived as two married couples under one roof.

In Anatomia Publica – a movement piece pitched somewhere between physical theatre and contemporary dance – Vergés suggests the emotional undercurrents beneath that three-way relationship. Surface smiles conceal seething resentment and violent urges.

Vergés shows a world glitching. Its three performers – two men in grey and one woman in a red dress – move like figures on a scratched DVD. Their bodies stutter, skipping back and forth with arrhythmic jerks. Limbs judder like pneumatic drills. Every action becomes elongated and agonised. Just opening a door and entering a room can take five minutes. Read a newspaper and you risk whiplash.

The effect can be extraordinary. Vergés breaks down individual actions into their component parts, much like Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies or the high-speed cameras used in sports footage. Split-second reflexes play out in high definition and subconscious feelings become clear. Hugs contain throttles. Laughter can look like death throes. Playful nibbles, and even kisses, start to seem cannibalistic.

Rather than just play and rewind, Vergés’ choreography frays and distorts, sometimes popping into abstract expressionism. Certain moments recall Francis Bacon’s paintings. Others pick up on ideas of butchery and surgery planted in a spoken introduction.

These people seem gripped by indecision; their every act hesitant and uncertain. They seem torn between past and present, first husband and second; desperate to move on  – perhaps from the war itself – they’re nonetheless dragged back by something.

It makes everything doubly, triply traumatic. The three dancers – Sébastien Lauren, Alvaro Morell and Sandrine Masionneuve – move as if weighed down by Parkinson’s disease and there’s a sense of product testing – 100 years of use sped through and condensed – as Thomas Fernier’s heavy mechanical music rumbles on like an engine revving or a printer spasming through a paper jam. Behind them, a clock marks the passage of real-time. Just occasionally you catch sight of the piece’s inbuilt absurdity and, out of the pain, there are little pops of humour.

Even so, it’s the form or mode of Vergés’ choreography that carries the piece, not its content, and Anatomia Publica has planted its core images and ideas within half an hour. The rest of the hour is just more of the same: haunting and harrowing though it is.

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