Amsterdam-based Jakop Ahlbom Company scored a hit at the 2016 London International Mime Festival with their sharp, funny and pant-wettingly scary show Horror. This year the company reprise Lebensraum, first shown at the Mime Festival in 2014, and though it’s entirely different in tone – think quirks, not shocks – you can see that it sprang from the same strange mind.
In both, the Swedish-born director combines his fan-boy obsession with cinema with his enduring love of old-fashioned stagecraft: trap doors, mechanical contraptions, trompe l’oeil effects and classic tricks of audience misdirection. He’s clearly fascinated by stories and characters, but not by text; instead, he goes for visuals, sound effects and physical theatre. And he loves a good set.
The opening scene of Lebensraum is all about the set (designed by Douwe Hibma and Ahlbom himself). It’s a one-room living space, crammed with ceiling lamps and inhabited by two men (Ahlbom and Reinier Schimmel) who make the most of their cramped conditions with a bed that upends into a cupboard with a piano keyboard, a sofa that doubles up as a storage chest, and a madcap system of ropes and pulleys that lets them pass the salt at mealtimes or swing a water bottle back into the icebox.
The scene is taken almost directly from the opening of Buster Keaton’s short film Scarecrow (1920), and the two men share Keaton’s blend of casual surrealism and deadpan seriousness. So too do the accompanying musical duo Leonard Lucieer and Empee Holwerda of the band Alamo Race Track – chameleon presences in patterned suits who blend into the flock wallpaper, emerging periodically to intone poker-faced songs with baffling lyrics.
At first, the piece seems like a chucklesome exercise in surreal, silent-film pastiche, complete with sight gags and pratfalls. But it shifts forward several gears – dramatically, psychologically, choreographically – with the arrival into this mechanism-fixated, object-oriented masculine world of an alien, female presence, in the form of a life-size doll that the two men have cobbled together to be their home help.
More Frankensteinian maid than monster, Silke Hundertmark pitches her role on the very cusp of ambivalence, her clockwork ambulations and toppling gait combining with glimmers of blank-faced mischief such that we can never quite tell, as the household tasks of sweeping, tidying and rearranging increasingly unravel into chaos, how far the men are losing control and how far she is disrupting it.
If the performers’ expert teamwork and comic timing are what carry the piece in the theatre, it’s that note of undecidability that creeps under your skin, and stays there long after you leave.