sun 29/03/2020

The Centaur and the Animal, Sadler's Wells | reviews, news & interviews

The Centaur and the Animal, Sadler's Wells

The Centaur and the Animal, Sadler's Wells

Unforgettable theatrical imagery with horse and man and the theme of death

To achieve a black stage that emits or reflects no light is a hell of an achievement. To place a huge black horse with black rider onto that stage, without the slightest noise, and to contrive a black shadow on the black, is to create an image found in the fathomless wells of subconscious imagery, and the skill of that vision and realisation of it is something I doubt I'm going to forget.

The Centaur and the Animal is a very strange and potent piece of theatre at Sadler’s Wells this week uniting - if it were possible - the pessimism of Japanese butoh dance-theatre with the mystical grandeur of the rider on the horse, and the great and fearsome associations between them. The mythology of horses remains barely noticed in theatre, so difficult is it to put them on stage without being gimmicky, but the show's conceiver, Bartabas, has a phenomenal equestrian mastery and the imaginative power to use it.

Centaur__the_Animal2_cNabilBoutrosHowever, you can tell he's French. I’d call this a thrilling theatrical event if it weren’t for it being saddled (sorry) with a heavily distracting and blowsy voiceover of verbiage poétique. The problem is less the quality of the text, than that to listen to it intelligently fights the non-verbal senses required to process the images, and therefore the power of the event was - for me - ripped down the middle like a piece of paper torn in two.

Words are murmured from first till last, a text oozing with images of sickness, corruption and decay. The English is not well enunciated and has enough of an accent to be a trial just to listen to through the patchy sound system. Swiftly giving up, I decided to ignore it and simply to blot up the extraordinary images and Jean Schwarz’s electronic noise soundscore. It worked for me, though I am told by colleagues who could hear better that the extracts of Lautréamont’s 1869 Les chants de Maldoror contained divertingly lurid images of vipers swallowing pricks, crabs in anuses, carbuncles, testicles, and all sorts of dactylic deliciousness.

Be that as it may, I was drawn down, down, down into this unnerving unreality, as Ko Murobushi, a tiny wiry old man, crawled and wriggled blindly and in extreme slow motion on the chalk-white frontage of the stage, while behind him in the sightless black vacuum Bartabas rode his horses like shadows of death.

The black-white contrast is somehow entirely lifeless, an impression paradoxically enhanced by the electronic fragments of drips, voices, echoes, last memories from the world. Powdered floors ensure not the slightest reflectivity or noise, on black or white. The stage is closed in with draped black curtains that can catch a fleck of light and undulate slipperily, like the gaping mouth walls of the Leviathan, or which disappear into nothing, leaving one in tomblike blackness, total absence of light, total disconnection with life.

Murobushi appears to be dreaming of approaching death, confronting the charging horseman of death in his fantasy, freezing in agonies of fear in reality. His little body is painted silver, and when at some point he upends himself naked on stage in a shoulder-stand, his head invisible from the front, it’s a terrible vision, a pewter statue of a man thrown like a dart into the white ground, petrified, headless, eyes underground. And behind him, in the black beyond, waits a shadowy centaur ready to collect his corpse, or a white, hooded Mongol khan on a magnificant, bull-necked warhorse.

Centaur_4Bartabas melds into his steeds in shifting waves of materials, like cobwebs, shrouds or gigantic black wings. Sometimes his body seems to vanish and the horse appears riderless, borne on wings. Sometimes he is a man dying with his horse, collapsing over and over while Murobushi shivers under a shower of dust (pictured left). The images are broken out separately, stark enough and blurry enough in the darkness to draw each viewer to their own line of thought.

The stage is designed and lit by geniuses, the four horses - only seen singly, which creates a strange shape-shifting effect - are marvels of discipline, their deployment by Bartabas of solemn and disturbing iconography. Although, to be sure, Murobushi has some achingly slow passages involving sand or pianos, when one does mentally check through the things that need doing tomorrow (and several punters left early), this is the first time in my experience that these miraculous beasts have been done justice on stage.


Having seen the piece yesterday, I'd agree that it contains strong and even unseen images. I had more troubles than the author above to blend out the voice which evoqued very disturbing images. It was actually hard sitting through the whole piece. - For me it ended up - and this in spite of the new images provoked in conjunction with the horses, sand, light - being one of the most lengthy performance experiences. It was hard to connect to the piece, to follow the story and I also think by the marketing which had emphasised the part of the horses, the audience was a bit mislead. Many people got up and left during the performance. It is not a piece I would recommend.

When I booked the tickets I thought this show would either be brilliant or terrible. While some of the images were hauntingly beautiful and the skill of the protagonists (human and equine) not in doubt, I felt it was incredibly enigmatic and opaque and so hard to engage with emotionally. As Ismene Brown says, the spoken text was a distraction. I found the parts of the performance without verbiage by far the most successful; one almost needed to enter a trance-like state, to be mesmerised by the slowly unmoving, repeated sequences, taken to a world without words. I left feeling I'd seen something very distinctive and beautiful, but curiously unmoved.

This is the most hilarious show I have ever seen. The sound effects gave a great effect and set a very amusing atmosphere. They were ace, though some of it was pretentious I would definately not recommend this for younger children because some of the scenes are rather inapropiate and disturbing. However older people would definately understand this performance although it can become quite repetitive. For example: the horses on stage walk around aimlessly and shat on the stage.... but anyway it is a great show and a real joy to watch.

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