[Review:] WE MUST LIVE, Blue Elephant Theatre, London.

This performance was part of the Wild Shenanigans Comedy Festival, staged at the Blue Elephant Theatre. It should be noted that this performance is a work in progress. Hence, this review cannot speak conclusively of its potential.

A humorous duo take to the stage. One is dressed delicately in a black dress and shoal; the other, in a bulky, stout bouffon suit. They dance, their angular or fluid movements juxtaposing one another, before setting the scene of a funeral: the funeral of Anna Karenina. This is an overture surging with comedy.

We Must Live appropriates Leo Tolstoy’s fictional character, Anna Karenina in a whirlwind of disorder, chaos, buffoonery and jokes. Even the performers, Julia Masli and Tatiana Collet-Apraxine, the so-called Pushkinettes are at ends with each other — one stern and decisive, the other clumsy and just happy to be there. This chaotic nature is a good tone for this work which lends its audience a faulty, broken world of havoc and distress. For its absurdity and unpredictability (at least, towards the beginning), this performance is most commendable. But this havoc is in need of definition. It seems to be limitless, covering such an array of topics and materials, even changing its structure several times, that the performance begins to lack a clear voice, personality and depth.

The two have certainly refined their buffoonery very well but perhaps need to work slightly more on persona, the two personae I mentioned in the introduction of this review seeming to be unfixed and preliminary. Whilst oversized pants, for example, are immediately hilarious and point us directly to the world of the bouffon and the clown, the question of why becomes a problem for this performance. Other than creating a ridiculous silhouette, this bold decision really has little significance in this performance or for Masli’s persona.

The two performers also laugh at themselves and the material quite regularly, which makes for a certain disconnection between the performer and the performance. It is unclear if the performance wants its audience to consider them as unwilling or short-falling puppets led by Anna, especially in the latter part of the performance where Anna’s voiceover plays such a big role in guiding them, or if this is unintentional and the performers are just laughing at their own work. Either way, it is worth noting that seriousness drives humour, and it is always funnier to see something so ridiculous done with severity and/or ostentatious pride. This principle was definitely understood, however, in the overture.

This performance does run the risk of presenting a superfluity of unnecessary items like the tickets handed out to the audience members or certain veils, different, for example, from the rope and accordion which are interacted with decisively, creating a narrative and a mood, especially in their repetitive usage. Whilst I can see how inspirations have been drawn from Tolstoy’s novel and other representations of Anna Karenina, I think that the problem lies in the presentation of this thinking and of the character of Anna herself within this performance. To an average audience who would not necessarily understand these connections, the performance becomes very vague and dry. It is the duty of the performers to narrate the significance of and to elucidate such stories and characters, the so-called crux of this work, before deconstructing them, in order to give the performance a coherency and comprehensibility.

Anna was used was a gateway into comedy, rather than the other way around, and this was clear in her manifold representatives: a personified coffin (a table), both of performers themselves, and a voiceover. I found it difficult to comprehend, for instance, how spitting water at each other related to Anna, or Masli’s monstrous breaking out of the black bag, for that matter — however comical and mesmerising in their strangeness.

Dance plays quite a large role in this performance, I imagine as an ode to quite recent interpretations of Anna Karenina, and it is certainly very funny initially, especially in the overture. But it soon becomes a very monotonous and untactful device and is relied on too heavily, gaining almost the status of a filler.

The theme of nationality, from the moment one performer declares she is Russian and the other, French, plays a large role as well, from the accordion to the representation of a traditional Russian funeral to the recitals of Chekhov. This expands both the themes of the performance to a cultural sphere and the character of Anna to literary canons.

I hope it is becoming clear now that the subject matter treated in this performance was very haphazard and inconsistent. It felt as though this performance hadn’t found its feet at all but served almost as a showcase of a huge variety of works. I personally had a strong liking towards this buffoonery we see at the beginning of the performance. I believe it would be better to refine the comedic/bouffon personae and to use these to explore a variety of settings, subjects and, with care, cultural peculiarities.

Even the description of this performance, which details the celebrities “sitting amongst the audience”, contrasts with the performance itself which definitely omits these details. I should also make a last note that audience interactions were quite cheap and ineffective and need not have even featured in this performance. A spectator should only have an active role if this serves as irreplaceable and crucial to the performance.

Even absurdity has a predictable, coherent sphere in which it operates. It is crucial to know the limits and bounds and also the nature and the voice of one’s performance. I felt that this performance fell short of a clear, coherent and cogent end.

“Hilarious and endearing in places; confounding, disappointing, even shambolic in others.”

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