The physical and visual adventures of Theatre de Complicite helped release the British stage from its text addiction. So why is the company now reviving old experiments?by Rachel Halliburton / February 20, 2005 / Leave a comment
In 1984, a little-known company called Theatre de Complicite went on tour with A Minute Too Late, an anarchic comedy devised around the subject of death. The company’s style – inspired by the teaching of clown gurus Jacques Lecoq and Philippe Gaulier – rebelled against the text-dominated boundaries of the British stage with an exuberant physicality. At that point there was little sign that English-speaking theatre was dissatisfied with its thriving literary tradition: only the year before, new works by David Hare (A Map of the World), Christopher Hampton (Tales from Hollywood), and David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) had premiered at the National Theatre. In the 1980s the word still dominated.
Twenty-one years later, Complicite is bringing back A Minute Too Late against a very different theatrical landscape – one that it helped to create. Hare and Mamet may still be staples at the National, but Complicite’s appearances there in the 1990s helped tip British theatre out of its text dependency into the visually more playful realm also represented by companies such as Told By an Idiot, Frantic Assembly, Improbable, and Robert Lepage’s Ex Machina.
Complicite emerged from the conviction that, while film was calling all the shots in naturalistic representation, the way forward for theatre was to appeal to the inner rather than the outer eye. Anti-naturalistic sets, puppetry, improvisation, mime and choreographed movement were forms theatre could call its own – and so the artifice of the stage became its key for creating a new reality. Complicite’s exploration of this idea began in the early 1980s while co-founder Simon McBurney was working in Paris amid the influences of Peter Brook, Peter Steyn, Pina Bausch and Sophie Tati (Jacques’s daughter). McBurney brought fellow Lecoq graduates Annabel Arden and Marcello Magni together with Fiona Gordon, forming a new kind of British company. All had been galvanised by the way the body could be used to communicate ideas more directly to an audience than words, and all were passionate about devised rather than scripted theatre. Complicite evolved from an essentially comedic theatre group (in 1985 it won a Perrier Award for More Bigger Snacks Now) to become purveyors in the 1990s of intellectually articulate, visually inventive works such as the synapse-tingling meditation on memory, Mnemonic, which represented the apex of Complicite’s achievement in bridging the text-based vocabulary of the British stage with the stagecraft and physical emotionalism of the continent.
Yet what is Complicite? Not one show has had the same cast and, since the late 1990s, McBurney has been the only founder involved with every project. Many would assert that his name is synonymous with the company, raising the question: is Complicite a method or a man? His more recent productions, The Elephant Vanishes and Measure for Measure, further developed the techniques of Mnemonic. But now, by returning to one of Complicite’s first pieces, McBurney seems to be pausing for breath and looking back, at a time when an energised National Theatre is, under Nicholas Hytner, embracing the cultural shifts of the 1990s. This is a good moment for consolidating achievements and recognising how far the British stage has come in the last 20 years. But ultimately, if McBurney becomes predictable, the idea of Complicite will have lost its way. It is what comes after A Minute Too Late – the show that bookends his career to date – that will count. And that may mean unshackling himself of his own legacy.
“A Minute Too Late” previews at the NT from 20th January