Of faces and clothes: Maguy Marin’s Singspiele

TIFA 2017 logoExperimental Theater at the National Theater, Taipei
March 18, 2017

David Mead

Inspired by a quote by French author Robert Antelme about how each person’s story unfolds through a need to be recognised, and the need we all have to know others in some way, Maguy Marin’s Singspiele is 60 minutes about anonymous and known faces, and about perception.

Interpreter David Mambouch is alone on stage save for a variety of clothes, male and female, and a pad of headshots which he holds with his mouth in front of his own face. Strikingly vulnerable when himself in the couple of breaks he takes (which rather reinforces how important clothes are in projecting image), he works his way along three sets of hooks and back again with a calm elegance as he dresses and undresses, adding extra touches with the hidden accessories he finds in pockets, changing the face we see every minute or so (he gets through 40-plus in the hour). All this is done to a soundtrack of everyday hubbub that includes people, passing traffic and the roar of aircraft.

Their expressions on the black-and-white photographs are vital. The faces come in all forms, all skin colours, male and female. Some are beautiful, some show the ravages of time, some look worried, some are laughing, but almost all are overwhelming as they provide a window into the invisible and silent stories that lay within, although it has to be said that the anonymous ones do work best. The clothes most often reinforce what is seen in the face, but there are times when they conflict making one wonder which should be believed. Which is the ‘illusion’, which is ‘real’?

SingspielePhoto B Lebreton
Photo B Lebreton

The pace is slow, Mambouch’s progress almost ceremonial. There are times when it’s hypnotic, but there are times when the repetition of the single idea gets truly tedious. Just ten minutes in, it is very predictable. That the tedium is released is due entirely to Mambouch and the personas he magics up.

Although Marin’s use of costume and face (through those pictures) is central to Singspiele, just as important are the possibilities and importance of gesture that are revealed. She, or rather interpreter David Mambouch, shows just how little is needed to transmit a message or create perception, provided that it is done clearly. It’s an object lesson for any choreographer or dramatist, dancer or actor.

Despite Mambouch’s slow calmness, the faces and references come and go quite quickly. Along the way, there are some unfortunate lapses into cliché and too many stereotypes. There are times when Mambouch and Marin say too much, make things too obvious. Do we really need to see Winston Churchill’s two-finger salute? And there are times when they leaves us asking ‘Why?’, notably when the image of the first woman’s face is blocked out clown-like with red lipstick. If there is a message here, it is lost.

Love Marin and love performance art (this is a long way from ‘dance’ as most people would understand it) and I suspect you will love Singspiele; and while a few people walked out, it did get a great reception at the end. I was left wondering, though. While far from being without interest, and despite the thoughts it provokes, I just couldn’t help walking away musing whether it is really a case of the emperor’s new clothes, and that if it wasn’t Maguy Marin, would we have anything like the same feelings about it. I suspect not.