The week in theatre: Mnemonic; The Secret Garden; The Herds – review

This is not quite what I remembered. Going into Simon McBurney’s Mnemonic I had in mind a cascade of images from its first staging 25 years ago: I recalled it as a show that, though dextrously physical, was trying to embody an abstraction, seeking to put on stage not simply particular memories but the act of memorising itself: the way events become randomly linked, one odd circumstance helping to summon another, every memory unstable, being remade each time we look back.

It was a mind-changing theatrical event, which flowed from ice age to our age, from the discovery of an ancient body to the uncovering of family history, from academics competing to lasso a long-lost biography to lovers trying to find a future.

Features of the 1999 show – the frozen body, the thawing lovers – remain, but much dialogue and speech has been reinvented for a new cast. Khalid Abdalla, who morphs from narrator to romancer to corpse, is compelling, and the qualities with which Complicité has for ever altered the stage are apparent throughout.

There are quick evocations (a Eurostar journey captured with bands of flashing lights); the merging of past and present, with figures receding into mist, glimpsed through polythene curtains; the animating of inert objects, so that a chair, first a throne of memories, is finally tweaked into a spindly character. Most important, the reach, across epochs and continents: at one point, a babel of different languages; at another, a genial meeting of Londoners, with Egyptian and Greek heritage, wondering what has become of the ancient world. Turbulence rules the climate and our minds. It disturbs but also intertwines us.

Still, this reincarnation is more deliberate, more didactic, more confusing than the original. Abdalla puts across the opening monologue with ease and authority. Musing on unexpected spurs to memory and the unreliability of reminiscence, he steers with a light touch past tricky moments: wearing eye masks, audiences are invited to run their fingers along the veins of a leaf, as if tracking family histories. His words promise an investigation of memory that is not delivered in the scenes that follow, which underline the near-impossibility of piecing together the past that lies beyond our memories.

Too much is made obvious. Eileen Walsh, such a singular presence, operates on default Celtic mournfulness. Why do she and Abdalla keep using each other’s names when alone: are they forgetting who they are? A company fuelled by such acting talent and visual imagination can make it evident that we all need our own stories without spelling that out. These are the lineaments, not the flesh, of a groundbreaking show.

It is a lovely thing that adapters Holly Robinson and Anna Himali Howard have done with The Secret Garden. The plot of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel, with its surprising spring, is fully delivered: a pampered, neglected orphan is sent from India to Yorkshire and unlocks her heart when she turns the key to a secret garden. Yet the book’s colonialism and sentimentality have been remade. Mary Lennox (nicely sour Hannah Khalique-Brown) now has an Indian mother; a boy behaving petulantly is compared to the British viceroy; there are no miracle cures.

Hannah Khalique-Brown as a ‘nicely sour’ Mary Lennox, third left, and company in The Secret Garden. Photograph: Alex Brenner

In Anna Himali Howard’s fleet production the air is thick with secrets – doors are closed, sentences cut short – but there is lightness and flight as new life is whisked out of unexpected places: a scarf becomes a flapping crow; a fur stole turns into a squirrel; the red patch on the palm of a hand flicks around as a robin. Jai Morjaria’s lighting beautifully conjures Indian warmth, then drains its gold to the paleness of loss and a northern English winter. I am, though, puzzled by Leslie Travers’s design, which, having blanked out nature with a wall, instead of opening the door of the secret garden on to the verdure of Regent’s Park itself, creates artificial blooms and foliage, with paper chains and streamers and bright tissue fans. Pretty enough but missing the point of the natural rebirth. Oh for a production that really used the splendour of this public garden.

One of the most vital events of the next theatrical year has just been launched. Artistic director Amir Nizar Zuabi and producer David Lan are hoping to suggest a new way of thinking about climate change, to provoke not a scientific reaction but an emotional response. They are part of the team that in 2021 created The Walk, when Little Amal, a 12ft puppet, a refugee girl, walked from Turkey to the UK, stirring streets and hearts.

The Herds promises to spread still wider ripples. In the spring of 2025, a herd of lifesize puppet animals will set off from the Congo Basin on a 20,000km journey to the Arctic Circle, forced to move by the climate crisis. The first creatures, made at Wimbledon College of Arts, London, were designed and developed in Cape Town by Ukwanda Puppets and Designs Art Collective. These are Kinshasa beasts: gazelles with eyes like lumps of coal, and matchstick legs, their bodies reaching to the waists of the puppeteers who lead them. Grazing, sniffing the air, flinching, they bring home how much expressiveness is to do not with facial tics but with movement, attitude and stillness. They are made, extraordinarily, from corrugated cardboard.

Wild things… puppets and their handlers at the launch of The Walk Productions’ new project, The Herds. Photograph: Hugo Glendinning

There are lions too, and statuesque kudus, with long, spiralling antlers: these animals take three puppeteers to operate; inside, they synchronise their movements by listening to each other’s breath. The herd will swell as it travels, with new species particular to different regions being added. Importantly, the company aims to train new puppeteers and new makers at each stopping place. Before leading us to a patch of green amid Edwardian terraces, where a lion brought down a gazelle, Zuabi explained: “We are inviting you into the kitchen. What we are doing is chopping the vegetables. We have not made food yet.” They are, though, already en route to nourishing new audiences.

Star ratings (out of five)
Mnemonic
★★★
The Secret Garden ★★★★

  • Mnemonic is at the Olivier, National Theatre, London, until 10 August

The Guardian

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