Often the simplest theatrical devices are the most effective. The standout moment of Compagnie Philippe Genty's Ne M'Oublie Pas (Forget Me Not) is a dancer whirling joyfully in circles, controlling a piece of billowing black fabric with a long pole. Yet this device is more complex than it seems at first sight: the fabric can be manipulated into a tube which several performers use to enter and exit the stage seamlessly, looking as though they pop into existence from nowhere, or disappear into an alternate realm.

Ne M'Oublie Pas © Pascal François
Ne M'Oublie Pas
© Pascal François


A mix of puppetry, dance, song and mime, Ne M'Oublie Pas is a 90-minute saga exploring at a fundamental level what it means to be human. In part this is accomplished by putting performers in opposition to things that are not human: the show opens with a figure in a purple Victorian gown facing away from us, singing while finishing a portrait of a woman's face. The figure turns, using the portrait as a mask. When the mask is dropped, we see that this figure is a chimpanzee and are forced to re-evaluate each action up to this point.

In the beginning the stage is a cold place, a blue and white arctic landscape defined by mounds of fabric like frozen snowdrifts and the edges of glaciers. In the background, tiny shadow puppets walk on a hillside trailing a sledge or cart behind them, an action which agitates the chimpanzee. They appear to be collecting things: bodies? This hint of the plague cart in the frozen landscape lends an air of distant but impending peril to the scene.

Ne M'Oublie Pas © Pascal François
Ne M'Oublie Pas
© Pascal François
The lights fade to black. When we can see again, the chimpanzee is onstage with four mannequins, blank life-size dolls that reiterate the chimpanzee's distance from being human. As she engages with them, they begin to move: performers slide onto the stage over the backs of folding chairs, each paired with a mannequin that is at first under the direction of the chimpanzee. The mannequins are designed to look like the performers themselves; each is essentially manipulating a life-size puppet of him- or herself. Slowly the performers begin to recognize their own impulses, to manipulate each mannequin under their own agency. Genty raises questions here about the animating principle: what is the difference between a person and an object that looks like one? If I manipulate a puppet that looks like myself, is it really a puppet or is it just a part of me?


In the course of a joyous lifting, tumbling, tussling dance, it becomes clear that one of the mannequins is really a person dressed as a puppet, leading to a whole new level of existential queasiness. This doesn't last long, though, as one of the performers rediscovers the row of folding chairs. It is the London International Mime Festival, after all, and if there is one thing a mime loves, it's a folding chair.  There's nothing like watching someone fall over repeatedly for drawing one's mind away from the fundamental nature of being and consciousness. That's not meant as a criticism: most of life is operated in this switching between the picayune and the portentous. It is this very navigation that helps us be human.

Ne M'Oublie Pas © Pascal François
Ne M'Oublie Pas
© Pascal François


The show continues with explorations of desire, competitiveness for affection, and the risks of intimacy: to become close to others we must expose parts of ourselves. Circling back to the frozen landscape from the beginning of the show, the performers' exposed skin as they duet now tenderly, now viciously, takes on new urgency. Throughout the production these moments of poignancy are countered by humour: a series of furry white snowballs roll and bounce onto the stage; a girl and the singing chimpanzee duel for the love of a young monkey-puppet; and quite a few performers get soaked with sponges and a bucket of water.

In sum, though you may not understand the full depth of Philippe Genty's vision, you certainly won't forget it. The three curtain calls bestowed by the audience attest to its power.