This year, London International Mime Festival featured the restaging of Compagnie 111’s Plan B, the surreal interpretation of a white-collar worker’s dream. The piece, which originated 2003 with the encounter of circus artist Aurélien Bory with actor Phil Soltanoff, is a well-calibrated mix of circus and physical theatre that twirls as a dance and transports you into a Magritte-like world.

Plan B, Compagnie 111 © Aglae Bory
Plan B, Compagnie 111
© Aglae Bory

The theme – the office’s life – is quite appropriate for London: a lonely man plays a guitar at the front of the stage while another in a suit is standing motionless, briefcase in hand, at the top of a raked platform. Suddenly, a third man, also in suit, exits an invisible elevator, lies on his back and slides down the slope. He is followed by a seemingly infinite series of officer workers gliding, in different positions and at different speeds, down the grid created by columns of numbers in a Matrix-like background. These men move without questioning from one uninspiring project to the next, in the hope that it will just turn out fine. Finally, the man with the suitcase also joins his colleagues in the monotony of the game. But repetition comes with a price: boredom, procrastination and the search for easy distractions.

Anything can initiate daydreaming that, like the bricks appearing on the slope, creates grips for variations and helps to come to term with reality. Thus, you see them in a complicated choreography of somersaults and swift static movements slightly reminiscent of the videogames of the late 80s, and the slower speed of the slides allows us to see the acrobatic moves in all their beauty. Next, windows open on the slope and the workers cooperate to reach them, creating stunning flying duets. Then, from a pocket, a white ball is produced with subsequent surreal juggling between them and, as the ranked plane becomes a wall, they race purposelessly for the top. The scene continues with an acoustic solo for ball and wood plank. Finally, with a gust of wind, the wall falls towards a gasping audience that cannot but feel revived. Working with a ceiling camera and projecting onto a screen, they now move flat on the floor producing more and more surreal scenes: a Bruce Lee-inspired fight, or a rooftop from which one observes the stars before escaping towards them. The piece ends with the four artists standing in front of us as Men in Black in flashing light. You almost expect them to say: “we are erasing your memory; you will forget everything you saw”.

Plan B belongs to the escapist genre. We all have our second option in case everything goes wrong, but for our officers this becomes the centre, plan A. The piece lacks a direct narrative and works with free association of a dreamy quality. It can almost be seen as a transposition of Magritte’s painting style onto the stage, as it plays with language: with the object and its meaning, with transpositions in different languages, with translations gone wrong and free associations. Bory and Soltanoff manage with a delicate French black humour to portray the degeneration of an office worker’s boredom. The most banal and repetitive movement, sound or behaviour can be the excuse for distraction leading to surreal fantasies. What would it be like to be able to stick to the wall as a fly? And a man appears, with a suit covered in velcro, and jumps on a carpet-like surface only to remain caught it in the most absurd positions, with Superman as the favourite figure. French black humour is usually spiced up with the hope in a positive outcome: to a depressing and claustrophobic situation you add black humour and hope in the form of two or three surreal elements in crescendo, so that one is no longer sure of what is dream or reality.

The French company Compagnie 111 was founded in 2000 and has an active repertoire of nine pieces. They conceive their productions consciously within a hybrid frame, between theatre and circus, exploring the relationship between individual performers and the space of the stage. According to their website, the characters they create are a mix between “the extraordinary-being” of the circus and “the fellowman” of theatre. Their work closely reminds the physicality of Alain Platel’s work with Les Ballets C de la B (also in programme at the Mime Festival) but with more circus elements and an optimistic touch. Plan B is a piece that will appeal to most and will probably make the bankers among the audience dream of being a circus artist.

The Mime Festival, founded in 1977, is an important showcase for contemporary visual theatre and one of the biggest festivals at the moment for wordless pieces. Year after year, directors Joseph Seeling and Helen Lannaghan programme only those works of avant-garde contemporary theatre in Europe that will leave you, literally, speechless.