When words are not enough

Kate Johnstone reviews 'Oog', an offering from the London International Mime Festival.

The London International Mime Festival was founded in 1977, and spans the spectrum of wordless performance, such as physical theatre, circus and puppetry. In 2016 it ran for a month across different London venues, featuring 18 different performers from nine countries.

‘Oog’ was performed by Al Seed, a Glasgow-based artist.The piece starts with the performer sitting on a chair, entombed in a massive leathery coat. The stage is empty apart from a rope ladder hanging down at the back. There’s a throbbing, insistent soundtrack beating out. Slowly, the man emerges from the coat, first just his hands, and then his head, in strange, spasmodic movements. Seed’s physical talent is immediately apparent in his ability to convey disconnect between a man and his movements. It’s like watching an old film, where the fewer frames per second meant that all movements were jerky. Once the man emerges, he starts socialising with (imaginary) others, turning his head, laughing and drinking. Then he’ll suddenly sink down, unable to carry on the illusion, until he rises up again.

As the piece progresses, the man escapes the restriction of his coat. We realise that he is a soldier, either plagued by memories or perhaps returning to the fighting from furlough. He takes up his weapons and gradually becomes at one with them. They are extensions of his arms, and he is a fighting machine, unthinking and automatic. When the fighting lulls, the man is drawn to the ladder. He is hesitant to climb it, even although it seems to offer him escape from this darkly lit place. We start to understand that the fighting has traumatised him, and has affected his ability to function.

There are many ways to interpret this piece. Perhaps his coat represented antidepressants? Or his numbness, post-trauma? Is the way out via the ladder his suicide, or admitting that he needs help? One definition of ‘Oog’ is as an acronym from the gaming world: Out of Game. Does this mean he is ‘out of’ soldering, which has become something akin to a shoot-’em-up computer game? Or has he metaphorically checked out? The privilege of a piece without words is that the audience is free to interpret it however it likes. Ultimately, it’s like trying to describe music. It is essentially visceral: like the experience of PTSD. This is a thought-provoking and fascinating piece that shows how much can be expressed in movement in the right hands.

Oog won the Total Theatre Award for Physical/Visual Theatre at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This performance was at Jackson’s Lane, London. Watch a clip.

- Reviewed by Kate Johnstone who is Associate Editor (Reviews)

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