Four actors, one musician, six stories and seven bamboo canes: it really is that simple in the small studio at the Arcola, where the basic function of theatre, story-telling, is explored in a series of naïve fables from Japan, Africa, India and Senegal.
After years spent working with Complicité, Peter Brook, Helena Kaut-Howson and the RSC, it seems like another fresh start for Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni, those dedicated pranksters of the surreal and the mysterious; and Hunter is thankfully fully recovered from her abortive experience as Cleopatra at the RSC.
She ducks and dives in and out of twisted old crones, various forest animals, village elders and a distraught wife whose husband (Magni) insists on playing dead in order to thwart a commercial rival even as they lay him in the grave.
Magni, a natural Harlequin, also plays an old farmer whose cows are drying up. Patrice Naimbana, a recent sonorous RSC Othello directed by Hunter, moos dolefully around the stage, while Magni selects one or two other cows in the front row. He counts the stars and a beautiful woman arrives with a box she forbids him to opens. Guess what happens…
One of the stories is comparatively modern, an animated newspaper cutting about a kidney transplant donated to a girl in Paris by a man in Mali. The surgeon juggles her organs like a circus act until he find the right one.
The surgeon – and the girl from the stars – is played by the extraordinary Polish actor David Bartholomew Soroczynski, a graduate of the Montreal National Circus School, just as Hunter studied Grotowski-based techniques and Magni at the Lecoq School. Naiambana brings an African strength and resonance, realism perhaps, to complement all three clowns. It’s a heady brew of performing talent, even if the show itself – in which one or two of the stories become over-rambling and over-convoluted – doesn’t have a dramatic momentum and ends, arbitrarily almost, on the punch line of the title.
But it’s a charming (nearly) two hours, no interval, with excellent musical accompaniment on a variety of unusual instruments (and an accordion) by Tunde Jegede, and deft lighting by Alex Wardle.