Friday, 29 August 2008
In the late 1970s Simon McBurney studied English at Cambridge University, where he was a performer and writer in the Cambridge Footlights alongside Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie and Annabel Arden. After graduating, he trained at the Jacques Lecoq school in Paris before returning to London in 1983 to co-found Theatre de Complicite with Annabel Arden, Marcello Magni and Fiona Gordon. After almost thirty productions in the past twenty years, many of which have toured extensively, Complicite has established itself as one of Europe’s most popular, critically lauded and influential theatre companies. Successfully navigating the apparent divide between avant-garde experiment and a popular mainstream, Complicite has become known internationally for the physical dexterity and darkly comic inventiveness of its collaboratively devised work (1), and the fluid dramaturgies of its productions of classic texts (2) and adaptations of contemporary fiction (3). As artistic director of Complicite, McBurney has directed almost all of the company’s shows in the past ten years to produce a body of work of remarkable focus, energy and diversity. At the same time, he has continued to work internationally as a freelance theatre director and an actor in both film and television (4)
Having trained as a performer with Lecoq, McBurney brings an embodied understanding of the predicament of performers to his work as a director, and in particular to the necessity for collaborators to generate a common language. At the outset of any devising process - and all of McBurney’s work should be viewed through the lens of devising, including the work on existing texts (5) - his primary concern is to try to invent the conditions for invention through the preparation of bodies, voices and imaginations: ‘I prepare them so that they are ready: ready to change, ready to be surprised, ready to seize any opportunity that comes their way’ (McBurney 1999: 71). A number of McBurney’s long term collaborators also trained with Lecoq, and they share a certain shorthand in terms of exercises, discourses and dispositions towards the making of performance. Over the years, however, Complicite has become an increasingly loose alliance of collaborators rather than a permanent company, with new members joining those with some greater continuity for particular projects. In addition, McBurney’s freelance work brings him into contact with actors largely unfamiliar with the unpredictable and difficult joys of devising, the occasional terrors of setting off into the unknown and getting very lost. In recent years, for example, he has directed productions for the National Actors’ Theatre in New York (Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in 2002, with Al Pacino, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi), and with members of Tokyo’s Setagaya Public Theatre (The Elephant Vanishes in 2003).
McBurney happily admits to the legacies of Lecoq in his work: the centrality of the ensemble as a kind of multi-headed storyteller, swarming and shoaling as one multiple organism, ‘like a flock of starlings’ (McBurney 1999: 74); the ideals of embodied lightness and disponibilité as prerequisites for the emergence of forms and images in complicitous play, of emotion from motion, of laughter that is both celebratory and critically corrosive; the creation of suggestive, incomplete forms that invite imaginative complicity from spectators, activating their creative agency; above all, an amplified quality of attentive listening to and engagement with rhythm, tempo, musicality and the dynamics of space as core components in elaborating and evaluating live theatre:
‘an analysis through the use of movement of how a piece of theatre works: how it actually functions in terms of space, in terms of rhythm, almost like music in terms of counterpoint, harmony: image and action, movement and stillness, words and silence’ (McBurney 1994: 18).
At the outset of a rehearsal process, particular emphasis is placed on the establishment of a play space, with all sorts of objects, materials, research documentation, games and other rule or event-based practices available for individual and collective exploration; McBurney has used the word ‘playground’, and often reiterates a connection with team sports. The precise nature and use of texts, music, objects and other scenographic materials within a production, as well as the detailed texture of its compositional weave, are all determined over time in the studio according to a pragmatics of what seems to support and feed the emergence of a shared, deep-breathing ‘world’. In broad terms, the devising model stems from Lecoq’s autocours, a heuristic pedagogy of the imagination in collaborative making contexts, a flexing and toning of the ‘muscle of the imagination’ in search of a ‘moment of collective imagining’ (McBurney 1999: 71). On another level, it relates to the informed sink-or-swim predicament of street theatre and stand-up, or the patient immersive hot-house of certain choreographic or physical theatre practices that endeavour to spatialise the topographies of internal journeys. On yet another level, perhaps less visible but materially constitutive, McBurney’s modus operandi is informed by the psycho-physical attunements, layerings and expressive unfoldings afforded by a close study of Feldenkrais technique with the remarkable teacher Monika Pagneux.
Aesthetically and dramaturgically, McBurney is no less catholic in his sources for stimulus, drawing in particular on aspects of Brook, Meyerhold, Brecht and Kantor, as well as the neo-expressionist dance-theatre of Pina Bausch and Josef Nadj, the transformative manipulations of object-theatre and puppetry, the spatio-temporal polyrhythms and mobilities of film languages, and the critical intelligence of John Berger’s fiction, to create something unique in contemporary popular theatre. For McBurney’s work since the early 1990s proposes a distinctly European, multi-lingual poetic integrating image, narrative and a choreography of bodies, objects and space to produce a contemporary Gesamtkunstwerk. Within this symphonic form, the creative agency of performers and their bodies comprises the very foundation for a compassionate celebration of the extraordinary in the everyday and the marginalised, and an articulate humanist enquiry into a ‘politics of the imagination’ (McBurney 1994: 22).
One of McBurney’s most remarkable attributes is his facility for creating images that defamiliarise and redirect the geometry of conventional, received attention to reality, and etch themselves into our imaginations. Here ‘image’ is not simply pictorial representation or coup de théâtre, but rather a complex, dynamic syntax allying and layering movement, rhythm, text, music and object, engendered by the poetic logic of the forms and narratives at play within a production: image as the fusion of form and content in an embodied if fleeting ‘world’. Mnemonic, for example, is haunted by the ambiguities of new technologies of communication (the mobile phone) and recording (video). The phone line breaks up at moments of intense ‘proximity’, painfully reinstating distance and absence, and memory is replayed and fast-forwarded repeatedly, as if it were a VCR, in an obsessive search for the ‘real’ and for ‘origins’. At times the discontinuous rhythm of the remote control or the edit suite consciously determines the staging itself; live sequences are ‘rewound’ at vertiginous speed and replayed again and again in a cycle of repetitions with difference.
McBurney’s dramaturgies of emergence and dissolution allow highly focused ‘image-worlds’ to appear from the deployments, interactions and transpositions of bodies and objects, to crystallise into ephemeral sharp-edged form before their constituent elements are dispersed and returned to a state of energised potentiality. In The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol, for example, an explosive manipulation of wooden planks is used to represent the dynamics of desire and the precarious uncertainty of refuge as Jean and Lucie make love in a ‘barn’. In Mnemonic, a broken wooden chair (already a mnemonic-by-association for the main character Virgil’s father and his absent lover) is puppeted then laid out to represent the leathery remains of a 5000-year-old Neothilic ‘iceman’ recently discovered in the Tyrolean Alps. With the economy of a haiku, a white cloth is thrown over it, and the chair becomes a glacier. Since the elastic temporalities and magical metamorphoses of The Street of Crocodiles, in which the laws of Newtonian physics seemed to be momentarily suspended as books flapped and flew like birds, and a spectral figure strolled vertically down the back wall and into the space, displacement, connectivity and the fluidity of memory and identity have become recurrent themes in McBurney’s work. Accordingly, in all of his productions the material components of scenography are encouraged to mutate and recompose, to displace, transform and reinvent themselves temporarily, adopting ephemeral configurations and identities within a theatre language that itself is always migrating, transforming, always on the move. The only constant is change, the protean ‘play’ of people and things in their becomings: tout bouge (6). As the father says in Street of Crocodiles, ‘The migration of forms is the essence of life’.
From his early days in knockabout clown-inflected work to more recent investigations of alienated, sped-up hyper-modernity using sophisticated video mediation in live performance (Mnemonic, The Elephant Vanishes), McBurney has returned consistently to material of substantial existential gravity, political resonance or ethical complexity. Anxiety about mortality, for example, in the painfully funny A Minute Too Late (1984), in part a response to the recent death of his father; the fragility of imaginative life under repressive regimes in The Street of Crocodiles (1992), which directly referenced the murder of the Polish writer Bruno Schulz by the Nazis, and in The Noise of Time (2000), in which Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 15 in E Minor was re-membered in the context of Soviet history and the composer’s troubled life under Stalinism; exile, desire, loss and the slipperiness of relations between history, archaeology and memory in Mnemonic (1999); the tyrannies of extremism and xenophobic fear in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, McBurney’s New York production offering an explicit critical engagement with the brutish ideologies of a hawkish and morally bankrupt US administration.
McBurney seeks to contest and affirm - often at the same moment – and his work might be characterised paradoxically in terms of both its philosophical seriousness and its consistent lightness of touch. Within these tragic farces, celebration coexists with desolation, reparation with separation, reverie with nightmare, grace with gravity. In McBurney’s best work, the social and aesthetic act of collaboration itself eloquently affirms the vibrant creative potential of encounter, attention, imagination and connective energy, while the transience of the theatre event and of the forms that are its building blocks asks us to engage with the precariousness and transformative potentialities of our own lives as social and creative beings. ‘We have to invent our own circumstances, as we have now to reinvent our theatre’ (McBurney 1999: 77).
(1) These include Put it on your Head (1983), A Minute Too Late (1984), More Bigger Snacks Now (1985), Anything for a Quiet Life (1987), Burning Ambition for BBC2 (1988), Mnemonic for both theatre (1999) and radio (2000), and The Noise of Time (2000) with the Emerson String Quartet.
(2) Dürenmatt’s The Visit (1989), Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (1992), Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1997), Ionesco’s The Chairs (1997).
(3) The Street of Crocodiles (1992), adapted from texts by Bruno Schulz; Out of a House Walked a Man (1994), from Daniil Kharms; The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol (1994), from John Berger’s Pig Earth; Foe (1996), from JM Coetzee; To the Wedding (1997), from John Berger, for BBC Radio 3; Light (2000), from Torgny Lindgren; The Elephant Vanishes (2003), from Haruki Murukami.
(4) As an actor, McBurney’s film credits include Sleepy Hollow, Kafka, Tom and Viv, Mesmer, Cousin Bette, Onegin, The Last King of Scotland, and the title role in Eisenstein.
(5) ‘There is a curious and very different sensation when you apparently have something in your hands – a play – and when you have nothing but fragments, scraps and imaginings when you are devising; yet strangely I feel I start from the same place: until I start to feel and experience something, there is nothing’ (McBurney 1999: 67).
(6) Tout Bouge (‘Everything moves’) was the title of the lecture-demnonstration Jacques Lecoq performed internationally to great acclaim from the late 1960s onwards. As McBurney points out in his foreword to Lecoq’s The Moving Body, it was also ‘a central tenet of his teaching’ (Lecoq 2000: x).
McBurney, Simon (1994). ‘The celebration of lying’ (interview), in David Tushingham (ed.), Live 1: Food for the Soul, London: Methuen, 1994, pp. 13-24.
McBurney, Simon (1999). Interview in Gabriella Giannachi and Mary Luckhurst (eds), On Directing: Interviews with Directors, London: Faber and Faber, 1999, pp. 67-77.
Lecoq, Jacques. The Moving Body: Teaching Creative Theatre (trans. David Bradby), London: Methuen, 2000. Foreword by Simon McBurney.
Theatre de Complicite. Complicite Plays 1 (The Street of Crocodiles, The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol, Mnemonic), London: Methuen, 2003.
Text first published as 'Simon McBurney' in Maria Shevtsova and Shomit Mitter (eds), Fifty Key Theatre Directors, London and New York: Routledge, 2005, 247-52.
Photograph: Simon McBurney in Renny Bartlett's film Eisenstein (2000).
For Theatre de Complicite website, see here