Theatre de Complicite: They’re the key to what is possible

11th January 2003

They’re the key to what is possible

As Theatre de Complicite turns 20, Dominic Cavendish asks directors their views on a company that has changed the rules of theatre. Published in the Daily Telegraph, 11 Jan 2003

Twenty years ago this month, a group of young actors, fresh from studying theatre in Paris and burning to create a new kind of work using the skills they had acquired, formed their own company.

They decided on the name Théâtre de la Complicité, partly in homage to their teachers, the mime gurus Jacques Lecoq and Philippe Gaulier, who encouraged an overt display of “complicity” between performers, and partly because they imagined they’d be working in France.

In fact the company has been based in Britain ever since. By September 1983, when Simon McBurney, Annabel Arden, Marcello Magni and Fiona Gordon came, after a summer of rehearsals in a scout hut and several try-outs on the London fringe, to present their first show – Put It On Your Head – at the Almeida, they had become “Theatre de la Complicite”.

These days, the company tends to be referred to simply as “Complicite”. The name has shrunk as the reputation has grown and grown.

Those lucky enough to have seen Complicite in action over the past two decades will have all kinds of stand-out memories: perhaps one of the many astounding coups de théâtre that have characterised their finest work or the sheer thrill of encountering a company palpably galvanised by a single esprit de corps.

No newspaper article can do full justice to Complicite’s achievements, or give a complete account of what makes the company unique.

Along the way, many have attempted to pin labels to them: their Perrier Award win in 1985 saw them being associated with slick physical comedy; adaptations of Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles (1992) and Daniil Kharms’s writings in Out of a House Walked a Man (1994) identified them with a taste for lesser-known Eastern European authors.

Every time it has looked as though a dominant trait is emerging, though, there’s been a change of gear, a shift in focus.

With the company in demand around the world and only fleetingly seen in the UK these days, this month’s revival of 1999’s award-winning Mnemonic at the Riverside Studios provides a welcome opportunity to pay tribute to what is – despite its name and the continually changing, international make-up of its personnel – a British success story.

Simon McBurney, Complicite’s driving force, shies away from retrospection, preferring to look ahead – “as soon as we stop evolving, it’s time to pack up”. Here, though, admirers from the theatre profession consider Complicite’s legacy.

Sir Richard Eyre
Theatre director and film-maker

In terms of influence, you don’t look around and see a lot of clones of their work, which is a good thing. They are sui generis. The most significant contribution they’ve made is to bring European influences into this country’s theatre – particularly those of Pina Bausch, the Polish director Kantor, the Russian director Meyerhold and of course Lecoq. At the same time, they’ve retained a very English sense of humour. When they first started, there was a slightly tribal, self-reinforcing cliqueyness about them. Going to a Complicite show, you found yourself in an audience of privileged aficionados. When I brought them to the National Theatre from 1989 onwards there was a sudden realisation that this wasn’t fringe work, but something in the mainstream of theatrical expression. In a sense, we’re all aficionados now.
Stephen Daldry
Director and film-maker

Without question, Simon McBurney is one of the dozen or so most important theatre directors working anywhere in the world. His is a remarkably vivid imaginative world. What’s fantastic is that his work has never stayed static – he continues to grow and expand and deepen as a director and I don’t think we’ve quite seen the best from him yet, even though what we’ve seen so far has been pretty extraordinary.
Peter Brook

The English theatre has a fine and honourable tradition. Simon McBurney and Complicite are not part of this; they have created their own tradition and this is why they are so special, so valuable. The English theatre should treasure them and give them more and more substantial means to continue to develop their work.
Tom Morris
Artistic director of the Battersea Arts Centre

Complicite are Britain’s only world-class theatre-making outfit. What they’ve done is to carve out a whole new area of possibility for theatremakers which wouldn’t be an option if they hadn’t charted that territory and broken down all sorts of preconceptions – largely about the relationship between movement and text. They approach the physicality of performance with a similar precision to the way in which traditional kinds of theatre have used text. Just as Shakespeare appealed to his audience’s imagination through words, so an intense level of dialogue with the spectator’s imagination using movement has run through the company’s work. I went to see their early shows as a student and thought, “Bloody hell!” I’d be unlikely to be doing what I do now without those shows and I think a lot of other people feel the same.
David Farr
Playwright, director, artistic director designate of the Bristol Old Vic

They’ve been hugely influential for me, and were the reason why I started doing it. It wasn’t the whole playfulness that influenced me, so much as the fact that they were looking to quite a stark, forbidding East European aesthetic and were happily taking it into British theatre, which I’ve always found so incredibly insular, and making it popular somehow. With Mnemonic they’ve suddenly moved into a very contemporary area and showed how important it is to create theatre that reflects our time. In this country there remains a massive split between what we would call the avant-garde and mainstream theatre. Complicite manage to be somewhere in the middle. They’re key to what’s possible.
Michael Boyd
Artistic director of the RSC
I’m a big fan because of their courageous determination to run counter to a text-bound tradition. Through their desire to incorporate the body in performance, has come about the incorporation of the whole spirit. It’s interesting that they grew over a long period of time outside the mainstream, being quite poor – and that was the only way they were able to develop their aesthetic. The only reason I’ve taken the job at the RSC is the belief that it’s worth having a stab at imbuing the company with the kind of collaborative, sustained inquiry that marks out Complicite’s work.
Jude Kelly
Theatre director; now creating an artists’ laboratory: “Metal”

The theatrical landscape would be completely different without them. They were one of the first, certainly the most enduring, of the groups to take the idea of process-led work and stick to it. By this I mean that there’s a lot of talk about how sad it is that in Britain we’re all slaves to the four-week rehearsal period and there’s nothing you can do about that. Complicite did a number of things at the same time. They said: “We’ll make our own rules about how we rehearse.” And they said that conventional narrative structures didn’t contain everything that had to be communicated. They re-examined what live performance meant and captured the idea of theatre as a total performance. So they broke through the two things that people in British theatre complain about most – the practical constraints of development, and being too literary. I think that’s had a huge influence on other artists but their achievement still stands as a challenge, because people still complain about these things.

This article was originally published here

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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