'The Fantasist' - Theatre Témoin and Cie Traversière
Blue Elephant Theatre, London
This impressive devised piece provides plenty of food for thought. Louise is a painter whose ecstatic experience of creativity and heightened sensation tips into nightmare: imagined caresses become choking, voices nag and mock, drawers open and close with a rhythm of their own. Her visionary powers come at a terrible price. As Louise, Julia Yevnine is a compelling physical performer. Quoting the poet Arthur Rimbaud – ‘I invented the colours of the vowels’ – she draws letters in the air: for her, painting involves the whole body. An evocative soundtrack by Milkymee underscores the action, from squeaks and scrunches that trouble the insomniac Louise to nostalgic melodies for dancing.
Puppets, beautifully manipulated by Julia Correa and Cat Gerrard, vividly suggest a hallucinated reality. A hag with a burgundy boa swoops in with crushing criticism, all the more destructive because, ‘I know you better than anyone else’. A child-like figure made of brown paper, a ‘failed project’ abandoned by Louise, is given a voice that brilliantly suggests a mouth muffled by layers of paper. The conflict between Louise and these characters is sturdy and unsentimental.
When the furniture comes to life, or a demon lover with absinthe-green face looms above the slanting wardrobe, ‘conducting’ Louise’s movements, we understand the world through her eyes. At other moments, the visibility of the black-clad puppeteers has a distancing effect that is perhaps not wholly intended.
Two human characters - a mental health nurse and a friend – are admirably calm, supporting Louise without being sucked into delusion, but therefore appear rather bland. Despite a coda which reasserts the power of fantasy, their common sense view of reality prevails.
The piece as it stands is full of verve but somewhat over-extended. A clearer decision (in the set design and dialogue) about the setting, and opportunities for Louise to display more self-awareness and agency might give the story wider resonance. It is the nurse who points out that she is getting ‘too fast’; it is a puppet who swaps her medication for a potent blue liquor. But Louise quotes Rimbaud, who called for the poet to undertake a deliberate, ‘systematic derangement of the senses’. How far can she define for herself the boundary between the visionary and the destructive?