The Metropolist Recommends - - by Liam Fleming

A Very Modern Mime Story: How the genre is evolving today

A Very Modern Mime Story: How the genre is evolving today [Image:] Marcel Marceau performing at Ohio University 02-16-1968

The Trapped in a Box.
The Walking Against the Wind.
The Eating a Banana.
The Pulling a Rope.

These are the classics you see when walking past a street performer with a white face, stripy top and beret. This is your standard, run of the mill, Mime. Known for centuries as the purveyor of silent absurdity, mime is in the throes of a much deserved renaissance where finally the performance art and way of being is pulsing against its limits. The continuing success of the annual  London International Mime Festival is a perfect example of mime’s addition to the mainstream.

With roots in Chinese, Italian and French culture and increasing evidence of it’s use among indigenous communities, nevertheless you’d be forgiven for associating mime with that pale, zombie clown; lips sewed together and face in perpetual astonishment. Most memorable are those of the Italian mime used in commedia dell’arte where exaggerated characters acted as the building blocks for stories and became the fabric of Charlie Chaplin. But it was the French Mime artists led by Marcel Marceau that gave rise to the painted man and woman, dressed in modernist black and white. Marceau’s first appearance as Bip the Clown in Paris, 1947 was as politically loaded as it was creatively innovative – Bip’s liberating silence represented a refusal to take part in mainstream languages which had recently imploded in the moral crisis of World War 2.

chaplin A Very Modern Mime Story: How the genre is evolving today

[Image:] Charlie Chaplin in ‘The Kid’

But as contemporary mime continues to transform and evolve, Marceau’s Bip is moving in a radically new direction. From extreme physical theatre like Okham’s Razor, to mask-based companies such as Vamos, the annual London International Mime Festival explores exactly where the thresholds lie for modern mime. With such a diverse interpretation of the genre evolving alongside the new socioeconomic paradigm of our generation; one familiar element from the mime of the 20th century might be presumed to be its fundamental silence?

vamos-1024x819 A Very Modern Mime Story: How the genre is evolving today

[Image:] Vamos Theatre with ‘The Best Thing’

However, theatre veterans Jos Houben and Marcello Magni’s blasphemous Marcel took aim at this sanctified aesthetic with the radical inclusion of speech in their LIMF opening show. Founding members of world renowned theatre company Complicite, both Houben and Magni have decades of experience. As such this decision to include speech in the opening act of LIMF cannot be simply dismissed, but represents a radical vision of the future of mime as transcending its historical raison d’être.

Trygve Wakenshaw is another man taking mime to a new linguistic level. Working with abstract ideas and streams of consciousness Wakenshaw narrates flights of fancy that stray far from the generic ‘trapped in a box’ scenario. His latest show Nautilus traces the boundary between the seen, described and experienced as he vocalizes the ontologically explosive question; What happens when you insert a physical object into a mimed world?

marcel-3 A Very Modern Mime Story: How the genre is evolving today

[Image:] Jos Houben and Marcello Magni in ‘Marcel’

As mime continues to develop and manifest itself through various modes, highlighting the centrality of the human body to performance art, its evolution will inevitably spark some delicious questions regarding its own function and role. Does the mime exist in a purely ritualistic context? As it has done historically in indigenous culture from the Native American Sioux Heyoka to the Pueblo Clown. Is it a complex projection of cultural history in the same sense as Japanese Butoh or Marceau’s Bip? Or have mimes become relegated to stage tricksters and entertainers who have escaped the World of Illusion into The Real by contracting a morbid ability to speak? 

Investigating such conceptual concerns may enable us to consider more seriously the invasion of language into the innocent world of the mime, whose historical silence represented a sort of relief from the oppressive social logic we inhabit and affirm with verbal participation. As an art form it is exciting to view the myriad of transformations the mime is undergoing, but as an existential motif, the intervention of language is a serious development in its artistic destiny.


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