The heart and soul of mime

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 May, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 May, 1999, 12:00am

JUST a man, an empty stage, no words, and two hours of magic. With his white make-up, the mime skills that he has made classical, and his presence, Marcel Marceau put the noise back into silence, the fullness into emptiness.

His act was born in 1946, yet it is timeless; Marceau is 76 years old yet the act is ageless.

His stage contained nothing but himself, a hat, and a box. Yet I frequently had to shake myself to remember that it was empty - for the space he constructed for us in our imagination was richly packed with pictures.

A line of medieval paupers scuffling for attention and bread from a sanctimonious priest - and the locked room behind where that same priest not only stuffed his fat face with food, but dreamed of feasting on more food.

Or switch to a porcelain shop packed with shelves, Marceau the salesman. He pulled out a telescope to see the little bowl, so high up, that the customer wanted to see. And then with a little totter, and a crunch of his body, he was wavering around precariously on a 15-metre ladder, straining to hear what the customer was shouting up to him.

And we, the packed audience, ranging in ages from four to 84, were all seeing it in our heads, and laughing.

That Marceau managed to maintain the sense of theatre throughout the long performance was a triumph. That excited settling down of the audience before a theatre performance was dampened by a French-accented voice, speaking in English to the largely Cantonese audience, reading the names of the titles in a dull voice.

The Tsuen Wan policy of late audience admissions was also deeply distracting - people were led in at all times over the first 40 minutes, scuffling and scrunching plastic bags. They also forgot to give an announcement about the use of mobile phones.

Marceau's is a style that myriad mimes, as well as more modern characters like Mr Bean, have picked up and mimed their way out of a cardboard box with. But what is surprising when watching Marceau himself is how nothing is overdone: a champagne bottle is opened casually, and humour comes not from objects going out of control, but from someone getting into a real - or surreal - situation that becomes too much for them.

Most of the acts were straightforwardly funny - based on the seven deadly sins, or the adventures of Marceau's famously top-hat wearing character Bip. But the most moving piece showed a mask maker, trying on his masks. It was just a gentle and technical demonstration of a mime artist's skills until the moment the Happy Mask got stuck. This showed why Marceau is still said to be the greatest mime in the world. He showed the desperation of having to put a happy face on an unhappy and frightened body.

The audience gave him a loud and rousing cheer at the end of the night. He threw us an unreal flower.

Marcel Marceau, Le French May Tsuen Wan Town Hall