Live cinema on a huge scale has become an annual feature of the Barbican’s theatre programming, and 300 el x 50 el x 30 el is this season’s installment from Belgian collective FC Bergman and the Toneelhuis theatre in Antwerp. Following in the footsteps of Katie Mitchell’s entrancing Forbidden Zone of 2016, and Charleroi Danses’ Kiss & Cry in 2017, the production combines theatre performance with live camera feeds, from a visible camera team on the stage. This is cast to a screen above the stage.
300 el x 50 el x 30 el‘s physical set is impressive (all the more so given that they originally built it themselves in 6 weeks). Six houses are arranged around a forest clearing, rows of full sized pine trees sway in the background, and a pond is hidden within the leafy carpet. This semi-circular playing space sees very little action – most of the narrative is ‘watched’ through the lens of a single camera, pushed steadily in a clockwise loop around the perimeter of the stage. Small vignettes are glimpsed as the camera passes by the open backs of the houses – invisible to the audience, and therefore each a hidden surprise.
The tribe of inhabitants are anarchic, violent, chaotic, and yet poignantly identifiable. It is not our world, and yet the human condition remains unchanged – people love, people are cruel, people are constipated. It’s hard to pick out individual performances, because the cast is so strong, but Herwig Ilegems always drew the eye with his physicality, and Bart Hollanders’s bravery with his unsimulated masturbation is particularly notable. A slippery story unfolds, in 5 second increments with each lap of the stage with the camera – everyone is waiting for a flood, preparations must be made, the waiting is driving everyone slowly insane. Without speech, the narrative doesn’t drive forward linearly, but rather spirals down into self-destructive absurdity as the camera laps the stage at an increasingly urgent pace.
Pace is the spectacular stand out strength of this production. Everything is based on razor sharp timing, from the clowning, to the simulated drowning. There’s huge pressure for each small moving part backstage to be timed correctly. An eclectic score of classical music, and Nina Simone, helps with this for the company. This fanatical attention to underlying detail, without sacrificing an overall chaotic, unpredictable edge, is a key feature of FC Bergman’s body of work.
Whereas previously, the Barbican’s live cinema performances have revolved heavily around the spectacle of the camera, and the technical work required in getting the final cinematic shot, 300 el x 50 el x 30 el feels like an evolution beyond such fascination with the form. Part of its pleasure is still drawn from seeing the camera revolving across the front of the stage, but the device is no longer omniscient – it does not show us everything, important action happens off screen in the main playing space. In this way, an interesting tension is built up between the differences and limitations in both the audience and the camera’s view – neither can see the whole story.
Continuing its fruitful relationship with the International London Mime Festival, the Barbican’s main stage is the best place for this type of work – it’s height and breadth allows for the stage action and camera feed to not crowd each other. As a show, it should be impossible to stage – whole swaying forests rising up and defying gravity, mud, leaves and water everywhere. At one point a taxidermy sheep (the dead animal count of 300 el x 50 el x 30 el is high), is hoisted dripping from the pond, and is suspended above the stage for the rest of the performance, showering water down like a dead sponge. To have the strength and determination to realise this artistic vision, to argue that every artistic decision on the stage was vital and important, is so uncommon in an increasingly poor, asset stripped industry.
It is striking that the live cinema format has been mainly performed in the UK by European companies (in this case Belgian, but also French, Dutch and German). It is an incredibly expensive undertaking, with a full cast, huge technical crew, additional equipment and rehearsal time. We do have homegrown companies who undertake this work – such as The Paper Cinema, Make Mend and Do – but they tend to be much smaller scale, and suffer long breaks between shows, to be able to fundraise, and develop new work on a shoestring. Fully embraced in mainland Europe as a new cross-genre of cinema and theatre, a pioneering cultural event that can help to move stage performance forward, these continental companies benefit from better funding and artistic support to make this scale of work. Unable to front this kind of financial and artistic assistance, Britain risks falling behind in the development of new theatrical techniques that will preserve and develop the art form for future audiences.
Toneelhuis/FC Bergman’s 300 el x 50 el x 30 el will be continuing its run at the Barbican as part of London Mime Festival 2018 until Saturday 3 February. You can buy tickets here.
CAST AND CREATIVES
Creation and Performance by Stef Aerts, Joé Agemans, Bart Hollanders, Matteo Simoni, Thomas Verstraeten, and Marie Vinck
Set Design by FC Bergman, Matthijs Kuyer et al.
Camera by Thomas Verstraeten
Costumes by Judith Van Herck
Additional performances by Wim Verachtert, Paul Kuijer, Gert Portael, Herwig Ilegems, Shana Van Looveren, Evelien Bosmans, Bien De Moor, Gert Winckelmans, Ramona Verkerk, Arne Focketeyn, Greg Timmermans, Oscar Van Rompay, Matthieu Sys, Luc Agemans, Clara Cleymans et al.