The Barbican Pit, London International Mime Festival; 22nd January 2016
Expiry Date, from Belgian company BabaFish, is a moving last dance inside the mind of a man in his final moments. We know what’s coming, but not how it will transpire. Memories jumble in and out of dreams and reality, where sweeping rows of dominoes topple into Rube Goldberg machines that trade in time passing – a glass bulb of trickling sand, liquid slowly leaving a sequence of glass frames; manipulations of a juggling ball are relic of vitality and untamed potential, while contortions of a body are a disturbing reminder of a failing physical system.
The central character is played by Jef Stevens, weighed with slowness as the spectres of his life trip about him. Juggler Thomas Hoeltzel is a younger version of the dying man, Laura Laboureur, his erstwhile love, and Anna Nilsson – who also conceived and directed the show – twists herself into a series of synecdoches: a heart, a sinew, a toe. An untrustworthy body that doesn’t behave as it should.
This is not a melancholy representation mind. Stevens shows enjoyment at the glimpses of past re-lived and, as the ups and downs of his marriage materialise before us through ballroom dance and acrobatic wrestling, the hard times are given a light treatment and it’s the moments of joy that are allowed to play the heart strings. Dramaturgical advice has come from Bauke Lievens, and the whip-smart choreography – which seems to incorporate elements of Lievens’ ‘functional circus’ aesthetic – is by Hun-Mok Jung.
As far as this work has come from the traditional contexts of a big top, I still see circus magic gleaming through in the subtle colour palette of maroons and golds, in the illusion of juggling balls that appear from and disappear into nowhere, the chain reactions of the Heath Robinson set that seem to spring into action unaided and, most of all, in the sense of a liminal space where the fantastic seems perfectly natural.
There is something about the springs and silver ball bearings, triggered by the domino rally set, that demands our close attention to their inexorable progress. This attention then easily transfers to the sounds of tumbling blocks, clinking metal and chattering vocal babble that intersperse with pre-recorded classical music, heartbeats, and a recurring ominous rumble that sounds like a giant marble run trap, of the sort that chases Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. An awareness of impending limits is ever-present in this show, and I find it interesting that the moments when the last sand runs from it’s suspended glass, or when the last drips of coloured water trickle finally into their ultimate container, pass without recognition from the performers onstage. As, it suggests, the moments of our lives that later become memories pass without an awareness of their future resonance.
We build a picture of the man in snatches – did he play guitar? Work as an engineer? What became of the wife? At the end of life, it is his memories that give him the strength to keep going, even forming their own page turning machine out of stacked hands on elbows, fingers fluttering to shoulders below. But, at the last, they can no longer sustain themselves, or him, any longer.
The ending is, of course, inevitable (and, I will admit, there are times when I feel the character on stage has lived long enough and should get on with his expiration), but those shared unknowable flashes of how a life can pass before one’s eyes stir consideration of that most personal and solitary of moments that, some day, we all must face in death. We each have our own unseen mechanics counting down to the final snuffing of the candle, and life goes on until it stops.