Weekly Theatre Review: Mnemonic The Secret Garden and The Herds

Weekly Theatre Review: Mnemonic The Secret Garden and The Herds

This is not quite what I remembered. Going into Simon McBurney’s “Mnemonic,” I had in mind a cascade of images from its first staging 25 years ago. I recalled it as a show that, though dextrously physical, was trying to embody an abstraction, seeking to put on stage not simply particular memories but the act of memorizing itself. The way events become randomly linked, one odd circumstance helping to summon another, every memory unstable, being remade each time we look back.

It was a mind-changing theatrical event, which flowed from the Ice Age to our age, from the discovery of an ancient body to the uncovering of family history, from academics competing to lasso a long-lost biography to lovers trying to find a future. Features of the 1999 show – the frozen body, the thawing lovers – remain, but much dialogue and speech have been reinvented for a new cast. Khalid Abdalla, who morphs from narrator to romancer to corpse, is compelling, and the qualities with which Complicité has forever altered the stage are apparent throughout.

There are quick evocations (a Eurostar journey captured with bands of flashing lights); the merging of past and present, with figures receding into mist, glimpsed through polythene curtains; the animating of inert objects, so that a chair, first a throne of memories, is finally tweaked into a spindly character. Most important, the reach, across epochs and continents: at one point, a babel of different languages; at another, a genial meeting of Londoners, with Egyptian and Greek heritage, wondering what has become of the ancient world. Turbulence rules the climate and our minds. It disturbs but also intertwines us.

Still, this reincarnation is more deliberate, more didactic, more confusing than the original. Abdalla puts across the opening monologue with ease and authority. Musing on unexpected spurs to memory and the unreliability of reminiscence, he steers with a light touch past tricky moments: wearing eye masks, audiences are invited to run their fingers along the veins of a leaf, as if tracking family histories. His words promise an investigation of memory that is not delivered in the scenes that follow, which underline the near-impossibility of piecing together the past that lies beyond our memories.

Too much is made obvious. Eileen Walsh, such a singular presence, operates on default Celtic mournfulness. Why do she and Abdalla keep using each other’s names when alone: are they forgetting who they are? A company fueled by such acting talent and visual imagination can make it evident that we all need our own stories without spelling that out. These are the lineaments, not the flesh, of a groundbreaking show.

It is a lovely thing that adapters Holly Robinson and Anna Himali Howard have done with “The Secret Garden.” The plot of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel, with its surprising spring, is fully delivered: a pampered, neglected orphan is sent from India to Yorkshire and unlocks her heart when she turns the key to a secret garden. Yet the book’s colonialism and sentimentality have been remade. Mary Lennox (nicely sour Hannah Khalique-Brown) now has an Indian mother; a boy behaving petulantly is compared to the British viceroy; there are no miracle cures.

In Anna Himali Howard’s fleet production, the air is thick with secrets – doors are closed, sentences cut short – but there is lightness and flight as new life is whisked out of unexpected places: a scarf becomes a flapping crow; a fur stole turns into a squirrel; the red patch on the palm of a hand flicks around as a robin. Jai Morjaria’s lighting beautifully conjures Indian warmth, then drains its gold to the paleness of loss and a northern English winter. I am, though, puzzled by Leslie Travers’s design, which, having blanked out nature with a wall, instead of opening the door of the secret garden onto the verdure of Regent’s Park itself, creates artificial blooms and foliage, with paper chains and streamers and bright tissue fans. Pretty enough but missing the point of the natural rebirth. Oh for a production that really used the splendor of this public garden.

One of the most vital events of the next theatrical year has just been launched. Artistic director Amir Nizar Zuabi and producer David Lan are hoping to suggest a new way of thinking about climate change, to provoke not a scientific reaction but an emotional response. They are part of the team that in 2021 created “The Walk,” when Little Amal, a 12ft puppet, a refugee girl, walked from Turkey to the UK, stirring streets and hearts.

“The Herds” promises to spread still wider ripples. In the spring of 2025, a herd of life-size puppet animals will set off from the Congo Basin on a 20,000km journey to the Arctic Circle, forced to move by the climate crisis. The first creatures, made at Wimbledon College of Arts, London, were designed and developed in Cape Town by Ukwanda Puppets and Designs Art Collective. These are Kinshasa beasts: gazelles with eyes like lumps of coal, and matchstick legs, their bodies reaching to the waists of the puppeteers who lead them. Grazing, sniffing the air, flinching, they bring home how much expressiveness is to do not with facial tics but with movement, attitude, and stillness. They are made, extraordinarily, from corrugated cardboard.

There are lions too, and statuesque kudus, with long, spiraling antlers: these animals take three puppeteers to operate; inside, they synchronize their movements by listening to each other’s breath. The herd will swell as it travels, with new species particular to different regions being added. Importantly, the company aims to train new puppeteers and new makers at each stopping place. Before leading us to a patch of green amid Edwardian terraces, where a lion brought down a gazelle, Zuabi explained: “We are inviting you into the kitchen. What we are doing is chopping the vegetables. We have not made food yet.” They are, though, already en route to nourishing new audiences.

Revived after 25 years, this intensely humane and richly layered show from Simon McBurney’s Complicité asks us what it is to remember and to forget, and whether culture or chaos shapes our destiny. It blends the story of a 5,200-year-old Neolithic man’s frozen corpse and that of a contemporary Irish London woman tracing her absent father’s journey across Europe. All to illustrate that migration, and the human or elemental violence that prompts it, are endlessly recurring facts of life. And that the stories we tell ourselves are necessary, but necessarily inaccurate.

It’s timely, thoughtful, sometimes challenging, but also witty enough to start with an in-joke that Complicité “used to be funny.” Back in 1999, McBurney directed, supervised the devising of, and assumed center stage in “Mnemonic” – a term for something that prompts a memory. In this reimagined version, Khalid Abdalla takes the lead, asking us in an explanatory preamble to put on eye masks, fondle a leaf, and imagine our pasts and our antecedents stretching back in time.

When the masks come off, he’s become an audience member called Omar, who’s embarrassed by the woo-woo nonsense, then mortified when his phone goes off, but also frantic. Because the call might be from his lover Alice (Eileen Walsh) who has disappeared with their savings to search for the father she believed dead.

With the elegantly simple blend of design, music, and physicality that distinguishes Complicité, scenes from the couple’s separate lives are elided with supporting histories (a Greek taxi driver, an Algerian hotel maid, a Jewish journalist) and the linking story of “Ötzi the Iceman.” Abdalla also plays the pitiful but fascinating cadaver and is often naked as Omar, his body lit and presented in a way that’s more usually visited on the female form: sexualized, scrutinized, vulnerable, dead.

Ötzi was discovered in 1991 up a Tyrolean alp and became the subject of a nationalistic bidding war between Italy, Switzerland, and Austria over who “owned” him. Later, we see bickering international academics (moderated by the urbanely authoritative Tim McMullan) argue whether he was a shaman or shepherd, a victim of a patriarchal challenge or a pogrom. Stories that bolster our individual or cultural identity inevitably involve omissions and inventions. Memory plays tricks.

For instance: I’d sanctified the original “Mnemonic” as one of my lifetime top ten stage productions. This time I found it hard to believe Alice’s quest, not least because the updating requires her to stumble through Russia’s war on Ukraine. Complicité’s theatrical vernacular has also become the norm now, rather than singular. But “Mnemonic” is still a teeming, fecund representation of McBurney’s ability to make giant associative leaps while drilling down into what makes us human. It’s beautifully performed by both original and new cast members, and by an articulated chair that originally belonged to McBurney’s father. Or did it? That’s the point.

Source: The Guardian, The Observer

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