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Olympian spectacle

Perth Festival review: Dimitris Papaioannou, The Great Tamer ·
Heath Ledger Theatre, February 8 ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

Dimitris Papaioannou’s The Great Tamer begins with a slow, simple contest. A man’s naked body lies on a white panel on a grey/black stage. A man covers the body with a sheet; another man blows the sheet away. They enter, play their game, leave. Enter, play and leave. Again and again.

As it transpires, all of Papaioannou’s spectacle (it can’t be meaningfully described as a play, or a dance) is a game, the subject of which, the rules it adheres to or breaks, the bats, balls, dice, cards it plays with, is time. Time is the great tamer.

Papaioannou, who is best known as the creator of the opening ceremony for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, is by training and inclination a visual artist, and The Great Tamer is most satisfactorily approached as an animated work of art.

The set, a captured ocean swell, consists of a seemingly disordered jumble of those panels, like a jigsaw puzzle all of whose pieces are the same colour and shape. On and through this monochromatic landscape, Papaioannou’s troupe of ten actor/dancer/acrobats form and reform into tableaux, mutant creatures, or body parts, appearing and disappearing through unseen fissures into some unimaginable underworld.

It’s a world of art, sometimes specific (Dr Tulp gives his anatomy class, Kronos/Saturn devours his children) sometimes suggested (there’s much of the spirit of Dali in Papaioannou’s visual imagination; Escher and Bosch also), always playful.

Unsurprisingly, the forms and images of classical Greek art recur throughout. A figure has its marble surfaces cracked away to reveal the boy beneath (the debris is the rubble of time, swept up, bagged and thrown into the void), disembodied arms, legs and heads scurry from holes across the stage

For all the visual thrills of The Great Tamer perhaps the most brilliant effect Papaioannou creates, with his colleague Stephanos Droussiotis, is its music, a remarkable attenuation of Strauss’s An der schönen blauen Donau (The Blue Danube). It’s signature passages are excised, gradually dissolving into separate phrases and, finally, single notes, the musical equivalent of the aforementioned disembodied limbs. It’s a game, of course, a playing with the time that tames sound to make it music.

The Blue Danube is also, of course, a recurring motif in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Lovers of that similarly disconcerting visual extravaganza (I bet Papaioannou is) will recognise other references to it in the incongruous spacemen who float awkwardly across the stage, the light behind their helmets’ visors, like the reflections of the eye of HAL.

The cast of The Great Tamer are superbly skilled and superbly choreographed. Some of the physical effects they create defy logic, their acrobatic and circus skills are of the highest order, their wordless expressiveness compelling.

Because this is a world without words, and without narrative. It’s Plato/Socrates’s world of forms, of timeless ideas, of sight and appearance, the original Twilight Zone.

It’s Papaioannou’s playground; it’s where Estragon and Vladimir wait and Lear is exiled. It’s Beckett and Eliot and Shakespeare distilled, first into images and then to thought.

It’s no surprise, and no accident, that Papaioannou’s final image is of a skeleton breaking apart into rubble like a ruined Greek statue. Its skull rolls off the stage and comes to rest against . . . a book.

Perhaps waiting, in the marvellous game of The Great Tamer, for a Danish prince to play with.

The Great Tamer is playing at the Heath Ledger Theatre until February 12.

Pictured top: Platonic forms – the cast of The Great Tamer animate classical works of art

Photo: Julian Momert

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