Review: Jasmin Vardimon Company in 7734 at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 25 & 26 November 2010
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 29 November 2010

Jasmin Vardimon Company '7734' 25-26 Nov, Sadler's Wells. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Reviewed: 25 November 2010

The mix of surreal poignancy and humour in Jasmin Vardimon’s 7734 [spelling ‘hell’ when viewed upside down on a digital display] contains a whole crowd of strange bedfellows. It is, after all, an odd feeling to find oneself encouraged to be amused by a work that is clearly (in large part, at least) focused on genocide. But – to give a feeling of how far and fast her imagery moves – the set design, which mostly represents a concentration camp dominated by its all-seeing guard tower, suddenly switches into a seaside picnic (the tower – turned around with a buoyancy ring on show – now occupied by lifeguards rather than those intent on taking life).

Vardimon’s brand of physical theatre is as close to mid-European tanztheater as anything I have seen by a British-based choreographer and there are many sub-Bausch elements in her product (and I mean all of this in a good way). I found myself frequently thinking of the late Pina Bausch’s work for Tanztheater Wuppertal, not least Nelken and Palermo Palermo – both of which played on this stage in 2005. A sea of clothing covered the floor for most of the performance (much like the covering of plastic carnations in Nelken) and provided clever opportunities for performers to tunnel from one place to another or to stack up walls of cloth or pile the clothing into makeshift sand dunes. Another Bauschian device featured in the ‘Chinese-whispers’ sequence that translated an initial conversation in which a performer spoke of his grandfather’s unwillingness to open up about his wartime experience of hiding from the Nazis into something altogether different and more sinister as the story is passed on to others, before coming back to the originator. A sewing machine becomes a machine gun; filled black plastic rubbish bags fall from the sky; guards and prisoners exchange clothing and – with it, power; a wind blows away the seaside picnickers and their table; and – in a final scene of remarkable strength – seemingly naked prostrate bodies are held aloft over a guard’s head before being discarded onto a rubbish heap. The catalogue of images is complex and although many are powerful in their symbolic anger against the ideological basis for concentration camps and man’s capacity for unspeakable cruelty, others appear inconsequential and the whole becomes disjointed and uneven.

There are flashes of inspirational movement when the dancers erupt into harmonious synchronicity (the physicality of the windblown beach scene was impressive), perform emphatic duos and trios (one male trio was especially fascinating) and in the remarkable hyper-flexible one-legged balances of the dancer wearing Wellington boots (Olga Clavel-Gimeno?) but the spoken text consistently failed to match this level of excellent theatricality. Some references to the Holocaust were either hugely blunted instruments or tenuous in the extreme – it was only through reading the programme later that I came to understand the work was primarily about choices and influences. How much did art influence the Nazis? Is our point of view influenced by what we see or is what we see determined by our point of view? It isn’t the most novel of rationales for a theatrical work but it led to some interesting – if not arbitrary and irreconcilable – scenarios. One episode concentrated upon the tale (taken from a short story by Avner Shats) of a photographer who ruined a wedding by shooting only the ugly elements. The dénouement being that he became famous for his off-the-wall photos and the married couple became rich from the proceeds of their wedding portfolio, which had previously been the source of such unhappiness. I’m still, however, unclear of the motif that links this tale to the over-arching theme of genocide.

Although the show had some impressive moments of great poignancy and arresting imagery and Vardimon is certainly one of the more inventive makers of physical theatre in Britain today, the overall lack of accessibility to the work’s core intentions was ultimately an alienating factor and one that prevented me from rising to meet what originally appeared to be a worthy challenge. The credits indicate that 20 or more people were involved in its creation (including two dramaturges and an author). It strikes me as a classic case of “too many cooks spoiling the broth”.

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