Thursday 18 March 2010

Haunting the heart

You Look Like Ants and Uri & Me, Courtyard Theatre, London

London Word Festival

Uri Geller, psychic and spoon-bender, is now perhaps best known for his involvement in the infamous, painfully and hypnotically embarrassing interview between Michael Jackson and Martin Bashir: it was Geller, a close friend of the late Michael’s in his final years (Jackson was even the best man at Geller’s 2001 wedding) who suggested to the singer he should go ahead with the filming. The advice was, as it happens, not exactly brilliant,  given that Bashir exposed Jackson’s state of mind as untouchably disturbing and outlandish; and yet on the other hand, the documentary left viewers feeling, if disquieted at Jackson’s statements and behaviors, also slightly repulsed by the interviewer’s manipulative pretense of friendship.

Nathan Penlington’s show Uri & Me, which was presented as a sort of special-guest-act before Stuart Silver’s You Look Like Ants at the London Word Festival on Monday night, has a touch of Bashir’s interview about it, because it (comically) fakes an interest in and admiration for Uri Geller, while in fact being a tongue-in-cheek exposé of how absolutely silly and just altogether weird the man is. So weird, in fact, that at some point one has to wonder whether after all Geller might suffer from proper delusions, and thus, like his friend Michael, he should not be made fun of. But then again, once you have heard him telling you in his soft-spoken Israeli accent how his role models are Barbara Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger,  and once you have learned about how he built a fortune out of those delusions, any scruple of pity falls dead.

It turns out that Uri has written an infinite number of books (including fiction and even poetry), and has featured on a number of magazines, and has also been, pricelessly, the protagonist of a board game. Penlington works through the pile of written traces and memorabilia, using bent cutlery as bookmarks, reconstructing Geller’s biography and mixing it with excitingly successful magical experiments of his own, recreating the psychic testing Uri underwent in the 1970s. Partly, this is entertaining because Uri Geller himself appears to be an intrinsically comical object to any reasonable person. Partly, Penlington’s extensive research and fluid, friendly involvement of the audience is amused, amusing, and adorably geeky.

Nonetheless, on Monday it was the second act of the evening, Stuart Silver’s ‘new big picture show’ You Look Like Ants, which really raised high the roof beams, in a whirl of talking rabbits, mountain-climbing, physiotherapist teachings, and a very competently played ukulele. Silver (who was interviewed on CW in 2005) gave a performance that was quietly brilliant at understating its depth; it moved like an agile, talented acrobat performing an impossible routine with a serene smile, without hinting in the least to the muscular strength and effort at play. It distracted us with frivolity, scruffy and relaxed, and then surprised us with poetic impressions and profundities waiting around the corners - images of men standing in front of the Atlantic with England burning behind them, intuitions of heartbreaking insecurities and misunderstandings.

Silver’s words kept leaving Cheshire cat’s smiles hanging in the air behind them, the full philosophical wit and insight only hitting us with a delay of a few seconds, or even re-emerging many hours later during a tube journey or a lunch-break walk – ‘I depend on people empathising with me in order to read my own mind’; ‘when I grow up I want to be a pilot; or a member of the cabin crew; or a passenger’. Silver, in a fully buttoned polo shirt, barely moved on the stage, apart from lying down on the floor for a few minutes; his head remained slightly cocked to one side, in a mixture of far-away detachment and absolute seriousness.

While in their shows they both play on an element of surrealism carried out in earnest, Penlington and Silver are actually taking very different paths. Both are bright and, of course, funny, but where Penlington sourced his materials externally, and benefited from scouting one of the least believable role models of the past century, Silver weaved a delicate thread of suggestive images that keep, even a few days later, haunting the heart.

One-off performance


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