The art of clowning has been on the decline since the days of pierrots and harlequins, of the greats like Charlie Chaplin and Max Wall. But Slava
Polunin is a clown doing his best to revive this tradition, in a style which combines Marcel Marceau’s mime genius with the Marx Brothers’ slapstick.
The Russian clown’s latest production, Snowshow, leaps from the banal to the poignant and somehow manages to take the audience along for most of the ride. Slava has perfected his technique to the point where a wordless stance can convey mockery, aggression or even a plea for help.
But his performance relies on intimacy with his audience through the tiniest of movements and gestures. Perhaps the show would be better suited to a smaller venue than the Peacock Theatre, as those in the front few rows are party to jokes which are not visible further back.
In contrast, Victor Plotnikov’s design of the production is larger than life. Its most obvious feature is coherence, integrating everything from the music through to costumes, lighting and sets.
The scenery is basic: a series of rectangular fabric panels suspended from above. It is this starkness, though, which gives the backdrop its strength, as it lends amazing versatility. As the lights change colour, the fabric becomes the sea, the sky, a room, a station platform. Change is a vital part of the production, as Slava himself swings from one mood to another and the music and set must go with him – or is that he must go with the music? In one scene, a dying Slava, punctured by arrows, seems forced to suspend his death as the soundtrack refuses to fade.
There is something unsettling about the whole show. A woman wrapped in clear plastic is acting as a bouquet of flowers which won’t fit in a vase; a coat and hat on a coat stand become a lover the clown weeps to leave; and, by means of another hat and a suitcase, Slava himself turns into a train.
On the technical side, there are superb visual effects. At one point, while sweeping the stage, Slava knocks a cobweb from above. In untangling himself, he stretches it across the whole audience. At another juncture, he throws up the torn remains of a love note. As the paper falls, vents in the ceiling open and flakes of white swirl down.
But none of this would be quite so memorable without the music, ranging from pan pipes through folk singing to a keyboard piece which repeats throughout the show, hauntingly evocative.
Yet it is the lighting (re-lit for the UK by Douglas Kuhrt) which really makes the show, with its bold rectangles of primary colours to match Slava’s yellow and red costume, its stark white snowy landscapes and its seascapes. Rarely has a production used an empty stage to such effect.
Snowshow runs at the Peacock Theatre, Kingsway, London WC2 until 30 January. Tel: 0171-314 8800.