'The Body' review or 'An inner body experience.'

The Body, Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari
The Barbican, 20th November 2015




I’ve been trying to explain ‘The Body’ to my friends all weekend and I’ve been coming up short. The best way I can describe Nigel Barrett’s and Louise Mari’s show is a ‘screwed up ghost ride through your body.’ It’s a bit like what might happen if a tear-streaked clown came up to you in a dark alleyway and carried out in impromptu medical examination with toys for tools. It’s scary and weird jolting yet it’s also funny and close and tender. At the end of the show you’ll want to sit and linger and think, but you’ll also want to stagger out of the room in search of a drink.  

The audience (there’s about 20 of us) is led into a weird shed-like structure, made up of solid and opaque slats. It feels imposing, sinister, fragile. We are sat on high stools at the back of the space, with light bulbs hanging over head. There are heart monitors on the chairs, which we’re told to attach to our chests. I realise with a jolt that I’m not 100% sure where my heart is. It’ll be the least weird moment of the show.

Lewis Gibson’s music saws and softens and Richard Williamson’s lighting plays games with the music. Nigel Barrett and Jess Latowicki enter the space with beatific smiles. They are holding baby dolls; surprisingly lifelike dolls. Each spectator is given a doll and, when we hold our ‘baby’ against us, we feel a heartbeat. It could be our own heart we’re feeling. It could be a series of manipulations. It doesn’t really matter; what matters is our response. There are lots of giggles but the audience feels tense, alert, exposed. I find it hard to look at anyone and marvel at my instinctive tenderness towards this ‘baby’, despite all the artifice that rumbles beneath this moment. I feel pure.

And then this tender and spooky opening – this reaching out to some sort of beginning – is stripped away and we are played with, teased and tickled, scratched and shocked, for sixty absorbing minutes. Barrett walks on a half lit-stage naked and we giggle and stare. Latowicki and Barrett have a markedly flat conversation about taking a walk or going to the shops and we laugh at their empty exchange. But that flatness will be slowly chipped away at. It’s a little snapshot of the way we spend most of our days, skimming the surface of things and carrying our bodies about without a second’s though to everything that’s whirring away inside of us, allowing us to take another step forward.  

The tone jolts all over the place and every time we sink into any sort of state – begin to take the show too seriously or laugh too easily – we’re forced to recalibrate our reactions. Barrett comes on stage with a doll and presses parts of its body and the doll ‘speaks’: ‘This is my toe!’ We giggle. Later, Barrett will come on stage dressed as a doll, wearing a ridiculous blond wig. He will touch parts of his body and the same phrases will ring out: ‘This is my stomach!’ Our laughs will feel different.

Latowicki and Barrett are fascinating performers, never quite lost in their performance and yet never fully engaged with the audience. They’ll grin and wink at us – but then the mood will twist and they’ll take charge. The two actors sit on chairs and, gradually, we realise they are mimicking our actions. Some spectators will take charge of this moment and actively play with Barrett and Latowicki. Others will baulk at this invasion and anxiously look away. The power-play in this production is peculiarly volatile and it makes for an exceptionally edgy show, our eyes’ sparkling and body alert.

And then there are the dolls. Firstly, the dolls we hold against our chest, which sometimes bring us comfort but also create a truly strange out of body experience. Then there are all the other dolls; and this show is positively heaving with ‘em. A girlie doll is placed alone on stage and walks across the space unaided. It looks absurd. In another scene, two dolls sit on stage and talk; a weird projection means it looks like their faces are moving. It feels so strange you’ll want to crawl inside your own skin. In another scene, the black screen at the back of the stage shimmers like oily water and we hear gargling cries of pain. The screen whips up to reveal Barrett and Latowicki standing over a great tub of water, holding a weird little doll whose legs are kicking in the water. We feel safe again – but the longer that moment continues the more it begins to curdle and darken.

There are so many snaps in this show, so many physical and visual and emotional slaps and surprises. It’s an exceptionally textured and rippling piece of theatre that digs as deeply into the audience as it does the actors and space on stage. Weird little pockets keep opening out. The chairs begin to ripple – physically ripple - and it’s like a little whisper in our ear, reminding us not to forget ourselves. Because that is the deeply odd thing about theatre: it is a peculiarly physical experience, in which are bodies are paramount – each physical reaction fizzing in our brain and affecting our thoughts – and yet, during most shows, we forget that our bodies are there. We enter a darkened room, sit still and our bodies are lost in the shadows. ‘The Body’ refuses to let this happen.

In one closing image, the black screen at the back of the stage whips away and a vast space is revealed –a depth we never imagined possible. That huge space is filled with dolls. The lighting is cool and it feels like a graveyard, although the absurd details on all those dolls – the bows, the dresses, the little toys they carry – stop us from taking things too seriously. A violinist stands at the back of stage and gradually walks towards us, playing beautiful music as he goes. For just a precious second, it feels still and intense and rich with meaning. And then a little wind-up doll, sat on a bike, is set off and we watch her peddle furiously across the front of the stage.  We chuckle and we chuckle. And that’s just life, isn’t it? A lot of ridiculous peddling with some strains of beauty, rippling somewhere far off in the distance. 

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