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Edinburgh review: Thus Spoke... (King's Hall)

A kind of philosophical cabaret from Quebecois director Étienne Lepage and choreographer Frédérick Gravel

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Thus Spoke...

You might call it a case of mind-body dualism. Devised by Quebecois director Étienne Lepage and choreographer Frédérick Gravel, Thus Spoke… swerves between language and dance. A kind of philosophical cabaret, it combines short philosophical riffs, almost intellectual stand-up sets, with bursts of choreographed and improvised dance. Body and brain vie for attention – but maybe that's what it means to be human.

The theatre is often a political space, rarely an outright philosophical one. Thus Spoke… is, and unapologetically so. Staged on a black floor and back-lit like a rock gig, it's a feast for the eyes and a workout for the brain. Sharp-thinking one moment, then sexy as hell. One woman wonders at the sheer scale of existence, whereby seven billion people means 70 billion fingers, then slides into a sexy shoulder-rolling number; her spine undulating, her ass rotating. A routine about the rights and wrongs of crowdfunding a presidential assassination – whether the ends every justify the means – trips into a dinky flapper dance to "Anything Goes".

All the way through, highbrow mingles with lowbrow, and body politics bumps into linguistic philosophy: Judith Butler meets Beyoncé, whip your AJ Ayer back and forth and so on. That pop aesthetic combines with an intellectual playfulness so that thinking we associate with academia land like it's headlining Glastonbury. Thus Spoke… makes its subject sexy. It animates ideas.

It's slyer than a simple clash of speech and dance, however. The four performers often talk in subtly physical terms – "for f**k's sake," one says. Elsewhere, their bodies do the talking through sign language. Stock phrases repeat like dance steps until they lose all meaning, while body language goes in the other direction, until a single look can say everything that needs saying. One routine grows out of a speech, as abstract gestures first attach themselves to words then leave them behind.

What you see are two sets of signs, one often intruding on the other. Words change with gesture – a hand down the pants, say, or an aggressive stance – but language often seems a constraint. A thread of thought that tries to scratch the usual assumptions to find new ways of thinking is matched by another about new ways of moving. What if, one man suggests, we let the backs of our bodies lead?

What does it add up to, though? Well, less than the sum of its parts. With no overriding argument – if x and y then z – the show spins into the same ideas again and again, and rather than toying with new thoughts, it tends to illustrate old ones. It can be wilfully perplexing one moment, then unabashedly sexy the next. It's rare to see philosophy this embodied. Let's get metaphysical.

Thus Spoke… runs at CanadaHub, King's Hall until 27 August, 19.30.

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