Peeping Tom is one of the most fascinating physical theatre companies performing today. Founded in 2000 in Brussels by Franck Chartier and Gabriela Carrizo, the company regularly tours Europe to present their productions. They have returned to London as part of the London International Mime Festival at The Barbican, for the UK premiere of Vader (Father), after having successfully performed Moeder (Mother) on the same stage just over a year ago. Part of a trilogy of works based on family and its complex relationships, Vader focuses specifically on the paternal figure.

Leo De Beul and ensemble in Peeping Tom's <i>Vader</i> © Oleg Degtiarov
Leo De Beul and ensemble in Peeping Tom's Vader
© Oleg Degtiarov

The stage is transformed into the highly aestheticised visiting area of a nursing home, which with its high-rising walls feels like a remote, deep pit, removed from space and time. The isolation of the characters is both physical and emotional, as they appear secluded from the rest of the world, left unexplored beyond the stage doors. While the ageing Father is the main subject, he is far from alone in his torment, considering the other performers also express their dismay at the vast array of boundaries that limit them throughout.

A blend of acting, dancing and mime, this kind of physical theatre never disappoints. The cast of performers is outstanding, displaying extraordinary physical ability. Each dancer demonstrates spectacular mastery of his/her body, every inch and every muscle moves under his/her tight control. Enabling a highly precise and calculated work, the dancers create the rare (and somewhat paradoxical!) illusion that they are not the ones initiating the movement, but rather absolutely consumed by movement, which takes over from their bodies. Emotionally charged, the work impacts the audience with full force: the sense of a loss of control, whether caused by an aery seduction, apparent physical struggle, wraths of anger, or plain madness and disaffection, is evident. Even joy and ecstasy are undermined by the bittersweet realisation that the performers’ characters are fooled by an artificial feeling of realness, trapped in a illusion, reflected by analogy in the mirage created by the performers’ miming bodies.

Yi-Chun Liu in Peeping Tom's <i>Vader</i> © Herman Sorgeloos
Yi-Chun Liu in Peeping Tom's Vader
© Herman Sorgeloos

The narrative, deliberately blurred and imprecise, confused and confusing even, equally participates in the intensity of the performance. Without a consistent red thread connecting the characters, the story becomes abstract and rather hints at a multi-layered depiction of both time and emotions, almost edging on the realm of fantasy. In fact, while several members of one, or maybe even several families appear, they are inconsistently interpreted in turn by artists of different ages. Going back and forth in this timeline, often presenting each character at seemingly random stages of his/her life, the piece suggests an exploration of the metaphoric and symbolic figures of family. It also accurately portrays ageing, whilst also focusing on its corollary altered perception of time. Notably in just a couple of seconds, a young woman suddenly ages as she walks down the stage and meets an elderly man. Later on, the elderly man (now embodied by his middle-aged son) meets the young woman who turns out to be his daughter. The time-confusion continues further, expressing the universality and timelessness of family bonds, in their difficult complexities but also in the strength of their bond.

While the discrepancies in the narrative carry the emotional force of the piece, they also provide precious moments of comic relief, usually by avidly making use of absurd coincidental situations and nearly running jokes. The impact of the performance is intensified by the juxtaposition of authentic, overwhelming emotions and moments of sheer laughter.

With Vader, Peeping Tom delivers a powerful piece in which emotions run high. One can only hope for a third visit from the company with Kind, which premieres this April in Luxembourg, and completes this trilogy.