Complicite and their master director Simon McBurney have helped to redefine the landscape of British theatre over the last 21 years. But with this revival of their second-ever show, A Minute Too Late, at the National Theatre (where McBurney has gone on to work regularly, most recently with a Complicite co-production of Measure for Measure as part of the Travelex £10 season last year), you can now also see the seeds of their genius already being sown.
There’s the irresistible playfulness with form and content; the narrative freedom that isn’t defined just by text but also by movement; the frequently astonishing physicality of the performers; and above all, the transforming power of mundane, everyday experience into something that grips your heart whilst also pulverising you with laughter.
And what are more universal human experiences than death – and laughter? Subtitled “a civic comedy of municipal mourning”, this show stares into the abyss of death to lay bare the commonplace rituals, procedures, bureaucracies and above all the loss associated with it. It could also be called a revue about death.
The show’s original cast – McBurney, Marcello Magni and Jozef Houben – are reunited to play out a series of dazzling set pieces, in which we raptly observe events like visits to cemeteries, funeral services and a visit to the registrar of deaths where the seriousness of each occasion is constantly punctured by the unique physical dexterity of the performers to unwrap layers of laughter.
There are moments in the show, like the one where Houben’s mourner tries to wrestle with the bureaucray of Magni’s registrar or another where McBurney tries to keep pace with the rituals of a funeral service, when I felt I might just die laughing. There are others when your heart might just break instead.
It’s true, too, that there a few moments when it sometimes seems a little too pleased with itself and the effects it pulls off, as in a scene that evolves into a car chase between the police and a hearse.
But this is a unique opportunity to re-visit a production that dazzlingly helped to launch a major world theatre company.
- Mark Shenton