Review: Ivana Muller in Playing Ensemble Again and Again at Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells

Performance: 23 & 24 Jan 2010
Reviewed by Mary Kate Connolly - Wednesday 27 January 2010

Ivana Müller 'Playing Ensemble Again' 23-24 Jan, Lilian Baylis Studio. Photo: L. Bernaerts

Reviewed: 23 January

The backstage world of theatre provides an inevitable source of intrigue and fascination. What dramas play out unseen behind the curtain? Costume calamities, performer rivalry, and the blood sweat and tears behind the greasepaint. And what of the performers themselves? What lives do they lead away from the glare of the stage lights?

Ivana Müller’s latest work, Playing Ensemble Again and Again taps into this curiosity, weaving a web of fictive stories and clues which hint to the nature of an unseen performance (that has supposedly just taken place), and the private dramas of the performers onstage.

Playing Ensemble begins with a bow; the performance is over and only a prolonged slow-motion curtain call remains. It is from within this frozen setting that the work unravels its narrative. Dressed in casual street clothes and adorned with stagey smiles, the dancers gesture to the sound technicians and bow almost, but not quite, in slow-motion unison. And all the while, they piece together an internal narrative, adding to an extended group monologue piece by piece. In each reflection, the mask of performance slips a little further. Personal insecurities and amusing details, such as the fact that one dancer dyed his hair for the performance, are interlaced with more poignant musings: the performer who at the age of 42 has never played a leading role, or the one who thinks he can see his father in the audience. The actors exit the stage twice, and upon each return they have aged, and so too has the show which they have been touring all the while. Early career nerves and aspirations give way to the jaded resignation of seasoned performers, still shackled to a show which has long lost its burnish.

Whilst the text of Playing Ensemble is undoubtedly witty and engaging, it was in fact the soporific movement vocabulary which I found the most affecting in this performance. Each and every inch of movement, down to the lingering blink of an eye, was slow, unerring, and available for dissection by the viewer. The furtive sideways glances and clenched smiles normally rendered invisible in the blur of motion were suddenly laid bare, drowning out the text which surrounded them.

After 70 minutes the show really had come to an end, and freed from the restraints of their slow-motion languor, the dancers filed on stage awkwardly to take their bow. It was in this moment that Playing Ensemble held new resonance – it was impossible not to watch the ‘real’ curtain call, without picturing the slow motion one which had preceded it. Were the performers following the same sequence? And furthermore, what were the secrets veiled in the flutters of an eye or the arc of a bow?

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