A couple comes unstuck – quite literally – in Kalle Nio’s dumbshow of the heart. Breaking up over a posh dinner, their two bodies cling to each other; not in a final, wistful embrace that won’t let go, but like chewing gum or moist clay. The romantic scene starts to melt. The grey tablecloth gloops over the table’s edges. Their clothes grow heavy and damp, and every time they touch, they stick to each other like glue. Thick, gooey strands stretch out between them as if they can’t bear to let go.
It’s a stunning moment in an otherwise stodgy show – a strange choice to open this year’s London International Mime Festival. Finnish director Nio has, here, created something akin to stage sculpture – a triptych of slow, spare scenographic images that, together, take us through the stages of an inevitable break-up. Each is, admittedly, acute; a neat translation of the feelings around separations into a stage still. Each is, however, merely illustrative and broadly banal.
Lähtö – translation: Departure – takes its lead from the stagnant, spooling relationships in Michelangelo Antonioni’s films. His lovers can’t live with one another, nor can they live apart. His films wrestle with the nature of love; the way passion deflates as life punctures love. Couples get caught in undead relationships, yet something or other keeps them together. Genuine love, perhaps, or the horror of loneliness.
So it is here. Nio and his performance partner Vera Selene Tegelman fall into a loop. Sat at a dinner table – him prodding peas, her staring into a glass – they are pulled through an argument by its pre-recorded sound. The scrape of a chair makes her stand up; the glug of wine forces him to keep up. It’s a hollow relationship, worn down to routine, never entirely embodied. She keeps opening the vast grey velvet curtains onto a becalmed sea, and he keeps closing them again.
Then, comes the break; the slow splurge of a candlelit dinner that collapses like wet clay. A still scene, it takes a while to spot that it's falling apart; surfaces sodden, place settings melting. Nio nails the way, as things come to a head, time seems to slow almost to a standstill and the world gets weighed down. Love, here, loses its shape and its structure.
The third sequence – not quite final – shows the two of them alone. Using six Perspex planes, shimmering like the surface of a puddle, Nio constructs a giant Pepper's Ghost and choreographs a pas de deux between performer and their reflection. One seems to dance through the other's dreams. They reach out for a partner only to end up embracing an emptiness of air. It’s an artful, elegant encapsulation of longing, but, as with every scene, it runs out of steam. The effort of the set-up isn’t matched by the moment.
What’s missing is action – any sense of drama. It arrives at the end in a scene of conciliation. The pair heave the heavy grey curtains back up on pulleys; working together and almost hauled off their feet. It takes muscle, it’s high stakes and it conveys the constant effort required to keep a relationship taut. The same, sadly, goes for theatre and, too often, Lähtö goes slack.
Lähtö (Departure) runs at the Platform Theatre until 13 January.