After having joined giving standing ovations to Jakop Ahlbom’s mind-blowing Horror piece at the London International Mime Festival (LIMF) two years ago not only is he back in 2018 with Lebensraum but me as well in the audience, again in the Peacock Theatre in Holborn, London.
Horror was so different from anything I had seen before, uncategorizable and so astonishing that I went to see it again that summer when I caught it on its European tour in Hamburg’s Kampnagel venue. Theatre tickets seem always to be a bit higher priced in Germany compared to the UK but it did not matter. By pure chance on both occasions I was accompanied by a different sound engineer (I only know two) who could not get enough of the acoustics and sound effects creating claustrophobic tension on stage. It worked for me as well: I was scared, both times.
The synopsis: In a desolate mansion a couple of invaders are haunted by the ghost of a girl who has been abused terribly by its own family many years ago as punishment for curiosity and her rebellious nature – this homage of the horror film genre quotes everything that ever scared you and points out everyone’s fears, panics and traumas. I remember references to The Exorcist, Saw and Dark Water most clearly. It was a shame that when seeing Horror a second time the animatronics (imagine the Addams Family’s Thing on stage) did not appear. Horror is far away from our classic definition of mime and I would have trouble classifying it as dance theatre either, even though it was perfectly choreographed and until today I am wondering about some of the illuminations and visual tricks it featured.
Today I will not be less impressed. The 70 minutes stage art are similarly bonkers: Two gentlemen live together, look alike and act alike. The flat is a single room with old fashioned velvet wallpapers and the toilet just next to the fridge (which door is used as a bookshelf). They share a bed which is – when standing on its end – a piano. I am reminded of Mattel’s Barbie houses which are optimising space as well but while these pulled out bring luxuries like jacuzzies and shakers here even salt and pepper mills are dangling from the wall, the bread basket has its own train tracks on the table to be never moved too far and cutlery is similarly secured on its place. Optimised space is everything here and so is the daily routine. We watch the co-habitants laying the table, sharing a meal and tidying up in silence in their choreographed routine, every move optimised around the position of the chairs, of the table, accurately working around the limited square feet of the room. Never have pulleys been so hilarious. Is it time they do not want to waste, is it energy or space? (I try not to think of the London housing situation and the little apartment I rent.)
But with so much schedule an emptiness needs to be filled and they work together on this as well – out of a mannequin’s limbs a yellow dressed, human-sized doll is created. For company the audience first thinks but then we realise (or maybe our two friends have changed their minds very quickly) for housekeeping. Instructing the doll is hard work though, its motoric abilities are not as elegant as expected and only a lot of effort will teach it some balance. After softening its features and giving it a womanlier face the mastering of giving clear orders of when to begin, what to do and when to stop is the next mission. Is this Goethe’s Zauberlehrling, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice (most famously illustrated as Mickey Mouse fighting legions of cleaning broomsticks in Disney’s Fantasia)? Indeed not only the doll is cleaning manically as running amok but the furniture seems to revolt as well with every bit of interior giving way to escape the micros cosmos of the room first but looping a forced return in the end to all three habitants.
What looks like a rebellion first is simply the wrong programming of the engineers who have not defined their orders correctly and later in the Q&A the author and creator Jakob Ahlbom will indeed mention that Pinocchio was an inspiration, the progress and morals of artificial intelligence as well and therefore the ancient question of what makes a human truly human.
Finally, one of the two gentlemen throws the doll just through the window, obviously fed up. The other one brings the doll to a forest and gets out a cake with a candle. Not sure whose birthday it is and what birth means here anyway.
Lebensraum is a German word meaning literally “living space” or “living room”, habitat and further biotope – the space required for you to exist. We are reminded of this quite early in the play when two musicians (and their instruments) step out of the wall paper which pattern matches their outfit. The Dutch duo Alamo Race Track accomplishes the otherwise silent dialogues but also by singing – and I love the added rockabilly vibes. Is the soundtrack available somewhere?
The Peacock Theatre is well connected to Sadler’s Well, London’s first address for dance and ballet – the works of Jakop Ahlbom tick so many boxes that showing it here for the Mime Festival is quite logical. It does not matter that Lebensraum has singing, that it is neither beret mine nor classic contemporary dance and it does not matter that most of audience (including me) have not seen Buster Keaton’s The Scarecrow on which the play is based. 1920 this silent film was shot.
In the Q&A Jakop Ahlbom (who plays one of the inventors in Lebensraum) will indeed say he is bored of genre boxes and loves finding new combinations. I could not agree more. The audience asks some more questions about gender, advice for drama students and his heroes, the creation process and what inspires him and he tells us about having left his native Sweden to study in Holland. I am a bit embarrassed by how predictable some questions are, but he answers them all in such an intelligent way, sipping from his can of Stella, that I decide I will be a bit more chilled out in future as well. Even boring questions can be answered inspiringly.
Eurostar has announced that this year a new route to Amsterdam will be launched from London – I will check out what The Jakop Ahlbom Company is up to on their home grounds when visiting the Netherlands.
Lebensraum by The Jakop Ahlbom Company
***** out of 5 stars
Tickets for the second row in the stalls (B8 and B9) were 22 GBP via sadlerswells.com
The London International Mime Festival returned in 2019: http://mimelondon.com/