Review: Josef Nadj and Akosh S in Les Corbeaux (The Crows) at Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

Performance: 24 - 26 January 2011
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Wednesday 26 January 2011

Josef Nadj and Akosh S, 'Les Corbeaux'

Reviewed: 25 January

Part art installation, part musical recital, and part man-immersed-in-a-large-barrel-of-paint, Josef Nadj uses the symbol of the crow – a carrion bird often seen as a harbinger of death – to eerie effect in the funereal and sometimes perplexing *Les Corbeaux*.

Familiar to European mime audiences (Nadj trained with the legendary Marcel Marceau and is a regular performer at the prestigious Avignon Festival), Yugolsav-born Nadj has been collaborating with composer Akosh Szelevényi since 2008, working towards a total fusion of music and movement. The stage is set with a fascinating array of instruments – gongs, bells, chimes and a clarinet – arranged almost architecturally about the stage, indicating the central role live music plays in the work. Les Corbeaux begins with an unhurried solo for Szelevényi, lit only by the very dimmest of lights as he strikes a dulcimer with ritual precision. Only after some minutes does Nadj appear, silhouetted, obscured behind a paper screen, scribbling away as the paper scrolls in a meditative live-action animation.

Gradually, the abstract scribbles are replaced by recognisable symbols spray-painted on the screen – a skull, a cross-shaped gravestone, two ominous crow shapes, one appearing where Nadj’s own head should be. The auditorium during this sequence is filled with the odour of paint fumes, adding to the disquieting mood of this multi-sensory piece.

Nadj and Szelevényi together release a plug from the base of a suspended cone, allowing a stream of black sand to fall steadily onto a board below. The falling grains have unmissable connotations of the sands of time, flowing out of their container and into a discarded pool on the floor with a soft crunching sound. The two performers scoop the sand into tubular chimes, catching and releasing it again. The scene is pregnant with symbolism – time running out, impossible to save however we try – but the point is never too forcefully made.
Spotlit in a corner, Nadj works through an awkward series of broken-limbed locks through the joints, staggering from an uncomfortable-looking pose on his knuckles to an uneasy standing pose with shoulders pinned back, splaying one body part after another. At the end of the solo, he sits at a table and paints a blank, black stripe on his face so that it now resembles a skull.

It’s at this point that the meditative mood gives way to something less restrained and more absurd. Nadj grabs a bundle of sticks and begins painting with them as Szelevényi pipes out a fingers-on-the-blackboard riff of squeaks and shrieks on clarinet that left my teeth not merely set on edge but actually trying to chew themselves off. Where the earlier images of crows, skulls and sand had been loosely symbolic without feeling overdetermined, this painting of blackness seems at once over-literal and nonsensical. The black shade ties in clearly with the funerary theme; the sticks, splashes of paint and aurally uncomfortable noise-making rather less so.

Nadj then paces over to a three-foot tall barrel standing upstage and, slowly and deliberately, lowers himself into it, revealing the barrel to be full of yet more glossy black paint. He immerses himself completely, right to the top of his head. Emerging once again, his paint-covered body and head bear a strong resemblance to images of wild birds slicked with oil seen so often in the media, connecting once again the ideas of fowl and fatality.

A potentially strong image is undercut, however, when a black sheet is pulled back from the stage by an unseen stage hand to reveal a giant sheet of paper on the floor (there were definite sounds of smothered laughter at this canavasium ex machina). Nadj rather predictably rolls his body on the canvas, leaving a blackened imprint that reminded me of nothing so much as a bizarre Japanese game show. The careful balance between ritual meditation and disquieting absurd is blown apart by this and a final gesture in which the performer drinks down the bowl of black paint, completing his immersion in rather literal darkness.

Elements of Les Corbeaux work extremely well. There’s a detailed and thoughtful establishment of ritual atmosphere which, for the first half hour, is quite absorbing. But the later stages of the piece are overladen with image and artefact, at the expense of real content or communication. Nadj is clearly a master of his craft, but it is one that at times threatens to overwhelm him, and underwhelm his audience.

Part of London International Festival of Mime, 15 – 30 January, various venues **“”:

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