They loved them in Berlin, couldn’t cope in Amsterdam. Peter Nichols discovered how Theatre de Complicite were faring in Brussels.

Grey days; a city swathed in dank air and a taxi driver with no knowledge of the Beursschouwberg Theatre. Ile calls a conference ofcabmen while we wait. then takes us through the square streets of a square city to a square theatre. ‘Brussels.’ said McBurney later. ‘is not pretty. but there's character everywhere.‘

The Beursschouwberg certainly has character. the high ceilings and stuccoed walls aspiring even to grandness. But iffalls short. The plaster though old is not yet rounded by the years. and the auditorium is an epic in miniature and lacking the embellishments that might give it beauty. Tonight. inside. it is Theatre de ('omplicite. a company (on this occasion) of four with their show More Bigger Snacks Now. and the building is warm and noisy.

Two hundred and fifty Belgians. more or less. follow the show's chaotic path through dreams and dissolute reality. through snatches of English and Italian (even Dutch tonight?) through the comic anarchy. Despite a proscenium stage that pulls a moat between performance and audience. the show works well. From out of the chaos comes recognition and understanding and laughter. And threc encores. On their tours it hasn't always been so. In Amsterdam where the unemployed pick up around £100 a week dole money they made little impression. The style was not Dutch: the stale-smelling carpet (watch the stagehands' disgust). the sagging sofa. the dust and disarray. In Berlin it was the coin‘s obverse; playing in a circus tent to audiences of5()(). they were taken up. adopted and adored. That thrilled McBurney. ‘They loved the anarchy. it was full of meaning for them and the response was terrific. We were christened ‘Die neuen I’enner'. the new tramps; they would shout out. even before the show had started. ‘(‘ome out 'l‘ramps‘ and at the end ofeach show we could hardly get off.‘

In Brussels. in the bar after. the Tramps spill offstage. Simon McBurney. rodent-like on. seems still in role as he scurries between conversations; Jozef Houben. as milky white as a laxative. drinks his beer with considered seriousness: Marcello Magni fusses. his parents have travelled up from Italy to see him and the show; and Tim Barlow. langorous and noble and almost stone deaf. leans against the bar. Then Barlow farts. loud and long. hi features implacable. Next to him. the Brad and Janet of Belgian


4The List 31 Oct— 13 Nov

' theatregoers politely continue the conversation. ‘He’s very deaf.‘

l McBurneyexplains. ‘Did they hear

. that?‘ shouts Barlow. McBurney

j drops his beer. it crashes in a pile of

glass and froth at his feet. He regards

it for a moment. then scuttles off as if

somebody had tapped his cage.

Barlow changes his batteries.

Complicite have been three and a halfyears a company now. Well named. they are conspiratorial onstage and off. They achieve much through the mix; in More Bigger Snacks Now there is little narrative. their comic collusion holds it together. ‘lfsomething doesn‘t work.‘ acknowledges McBurney. ‘then we have to go back to each other and dig away. little by little. until we start being able to pull the audience back in.‘ There is no text to fall back on. in that sense they are performers. not actors.

The core ofthq performing company (though it grows and diminishes with Alice-like facility) is three: McBurney. Houben and Magni. Ina Brussels morning amid mirrors ofpolished mahogany and whistling chess-players (a Belgian phenomenon?) McBurney pours coffees and lemonade down to a bruised stomach. ‘Cor. was I ratted last night.‘ He curls into laughter. his head movements twitching and arching. The picture of the hamster returns. But the energy is not frenetic. nor febrile. Beneath the oldest and dustiest ofyellow. knitted jumpers is a disarmingly deep-shouldered physique. On stage that strength is vital.

i McBurney‘s R. background is middle-

5 class. if

father an archaeologist. his parents ‘spcnding

Llntla Kerr Scott, Celia Gore Booth. Simon McBurney and Marcello Magni


unconven- _‘ tional: his K. _ Sf

an awful lot of time trying

to get away from other people’ and living in a close family web. He took ‘05 and ‘A‘s ‘I didn't work. I just improvised‘ and through extemporisation arrived at Cambridge. In his second year there. he came to Edinburgh with Footlights. (‘Are you interested in fame. Simon?‘ ‘Not in itself. I could have taken that path at Cambridge. it’s a well trodden one.‘) In 1980. his final year at Cambridge. he returned to the Festival with a solo show on Charles Bukovsky. A Fringe First. then off to the Lecoq School in Paris. for two years of mime and movement and. most importantly. learning to develop the ‘actor as author‘.

Magni and Houben were there too. At the end of the course their liaison continued. but first McBurney took time out with the company ofJerome Deschamps. Deschamps had created a surreal and meticulous anti-theatre. much as a reaction against the mainline influences of the Comme’die Francais. where the smallest and most incidental ofour actions and gestures were expanded into elaborate and significant stagework. McBurney took much from his time with Deschamps. but eventually found the constraints too great. ‘It was theatre that you had to watch and concentrate on. It didn‘t go out to people. That was my argument with it. For me it falls into the French trap which is. ifit‘s obtuse. then it‘s somehow more meaningful that ifit‘s clear.’ Nevertheless. Complicite’s first production Put It On Your Head (April 1983) kept much of Deschamps. Set on a beach it was. at once, slow. surreal and ‘sort ofdotty' but strong enough to get notice. The company; McBurney. Magni. Fiona Gordon and Annabel Arden (who directs their latest show Please. Please, Please) were booked by Joe Seelig for the London Mime Festival. From there. the interest grew. The Arts Council. too, saw enough to offer support for their next show. ‘Fifteen hundred pounds.‘ snorts McBurney in disgust. He continues to sound off. ‘Ifwe just did what they wanted.

we’d go on touring and touring and touring until one day our

The show was a masterpiece. I A Minute Too Late; "McBurney. Houben

t'\' \‘~\ ’i r .. I \t {\Js B \\ .- ( ~F‘ Sgt

3: ‘2 n

faces would drop offour skulls.’

and Magni with a mirror on

death. McBurney. whose own father had died of cancer three years earlier. took much ofit from personal experience. ‘Like the way the undertakers behaved when they came to take my dad‘s body away from the house. They didn‘t give a shit. but they came in so serious. wearing their funeral expressions and asking questions like. “What handles would you like?" And we had to say. “Well. what handles are there?"

‘We had something called drop handles for my dad's coffin. They looked like skipping ropes. And they swung. In church one of the guys carrying the coffin had huge ears and the handles kept swinging. My mother and I got the giggles course you're not supposed to while everybody was stealing looks at us just to see how sad we were.‘

It was precisely the taboo area of death. or our response to it. that the show dug away at. And. of course. having experienced that pain endows you with the right to criticise the formalities. to laugh at them. McBurney’s reasons for A Minute Too Late were that. and more.

‘The piece wasn‘t therapy. but it was very personal. I spent a lot of time nursing my dad. ‘At times I got very angry and at times I thought ‘hurry up and die. because then it’ll be all right‘ and you feel very guilty. And then he dies and it's not all right. There are so many conflicting thoughts in that situation.

‘I talked it over a lot with my flatmate. Neil Bartlett. and he said that I think what you want to say in the show is goodbye. I think that became the keystone.’

A Minute Too Late was followed by More Bigger Snacks Now and the Perrier award for the best comedy of the 1985 Festival. They are currently