'The Cardinals' – Stan's Cafe | London International Mime Festival
A priest emerges from a rack of clothes into blue light, his red halo-like hat glowing like a burning ember. Standing in the frame of what will become a puppet theatre, he screams, presaging the dark finale of the show. We then shift to the meta-theatrical and now familiar trope of actors setting up for a show as if the audience is yet to arrive. Here the device works well because there is yet another layer – the actors are already in role as cardinals setting up a puppet show for a fictitious audience.
Their stage manager is a young, veiled Muslim woman, a fact that is commented on in a dismayed aside by one of the cardinals: “She's a woman.” The theme of religious war is subtly set. After her call, “All cardinals to the stage,” we set off on a journey through the whole Bible and beyond, to the Crusades and right up to today's suicide bombers.
If 'The Cardinals' sounds epic, it is, in spite of a deliberately and comically naïve style. Using a host of two dimensional wooden cut-outs and backcloths, wordless moving tableaux are swiftly created; ladders and steel bars bearing curtains and flats are banged about; and the backstage hurry and chaos provide an amusing parallel to the pictures created within the puppet theatre.
Stan's Cafe manage to make their show feel like it hails from tradition. It’s reminiscent of the Portuguese folk puppet theatre of Santo Aleixo and many typical scenes from the history of Western art are staged, such as Adam and Eve and the Annunciation.
The soundtrack is controlled from the stage by the stage manager character, and the show takes its rhythm from her cassette changes. Each time, she abruptly stops the music and throws the used cassette onto the floor. The loud clunk of her finger pushing the play button is amplified. Rather than becoming tiring as a motif, it grows funnier and seems to express her frustration with the incompetent and moody cardinals.
Once we get into the swing of familiar biblical scenes, I find myself wondering where it is going. Although it remains entertaining and the performers are engaging, perhaps it takes a little too long to get beyond the Bible and into modern history. Some scenes are obscure, assuming detailed biblical or historical knowledge.
Brilliantly, the interval is enforced when the stage manager pulls out her prayer mat but afterwards it feels as though there should be a gear change. However, there is something in the relentlessness of the images, and the wars that just keep coming, that feels appropriate. There is no resolution offered by the sudden and apocalyptic ending. But, rather than hopelessness, we are left with a dare or a question. What are we doing? What next?
London International Mime Festival