Bring on the clowns

Performance - Clover Hughes celebrates the return of a neglected and misunderstood art form

Mention the word "mime" and most people think of a white-faced Parisian street performer wearing an embarrassingly tight catsuit, stuck behind an invisible wall. Famous names within the world of mime are relatively hard to come by: everyone knows Charlie Chaplin, possibly even Marcel Marceau, but few have heard of Etienne Decroux or Jacques Lecoq.

"Mime" comes from the ancient Greek mimos, meaning to imitate; "pantomime" means all-in-mimic, referring to the complete dramatic sketch. Although today a much maligned and misunderstood art form, mime can lay claim to an ancient and respected theatrical heritage. In 100BC, a Chinese writer recorded the work of a wonderful mime artist called Meng. Aristotle writes forcefully about what he terms imitation in the Poetics: "Imitation is natural to man from childhood, and it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation." The pyrrhic dances of the Greek warriors were partly a mimetic representation of different kinds of fight- ing, and in Rome, the legendary Livius Andronicus performed mime as stadium entertainment. During the 12th century, it was a major feature of the mystery and miracle plays developing throughout Europe and England. Mime was still a popular form of entertainment in the 19th century, made famous by clowns Jean-Gaspard Deburau and Joseph Grimaldi, but the vogue for Pierrot and mime plays subsided after the First World War.

Since pantomime today has been hijacked by Widow Twanky and C-list celebrities in stripy tights, serious mime artists, not surprisingly, distance themselves from the form. But mime has found it hard to dispel the childish and cliched traditions of pantomime. "The public don't know what to expect from mime," says Joseph Seelig who, with the mime artist Nola Rae, founded the London International Mime Festival, celebrating its 25th anniversary this month. "Marceau, a performer of extreme technical brilliance, originated the classic, white-faced image of mime. Unfortunately, this rather limiting representation has stuck: people see mime as street enter-tainment. But mime covers something much broader, and should come under the umbrella term of physical theatre, encompassing puppetry, juggling and clowning."

Since its establishment in 1977, in the decidedly fringe venue Cockpit Theatre, the festival has developed into an established theatrical event, appearing in places such as the Royal National Theatre and the ICA. "The festival had a big impact on changing the image of mime and circus skills. It has attracted non-animal based acts from France, a country with a strong history of performing arts, and encouraged the development of circus schools and workshops in England. But mime still confuses people: they think they know about it but are surprised, or even disappointed, when a show includes spoken words, or is based around something unexpected, like juggling," says Seelig. Appearing at the festival, for example, are Spymonkey, two clowns who will soon be joining Cirque du Soleil. Their show Cooped, a spoof Victorian melodrama, is based on a spoken play. Also appearing are Compagnie 111, who use juggling and percussion to create a witty hybrid of physical performance and sound installation in their show IJK.

Because of the impact that Decroux, Marceau and Lecoq had on mime, there is a temptation to regard France as its spiritual home. In fact, much of the best visual theatre originates in eastern Europe: during periods of strict censorship, mime could wordlessly convey subversive social and political material, and was used to great effect by the Czech artists Bolek Polivka and Slava Polunin.

Generally, however, mime has no strong allegiance to any one aesthetic or culture, and so is an organic and universal means of expression. "Performing mime is an artistically liberating experience," says Corinne Soum of Theatre de l'Ange Fou. "When we work as a company, no single actor dominates a scene."

Although there are relatively few high-profile pure mime companies performing in this country, mime is beginning to influence conventional theatre. Simon McBurney, who studied under Lecoq and directed Theatre de Complicite's Mnemonic, recently performed at the Riverside, is the director credited with precipitating this change. He puts as much emphasis on the visual impact of a show as the textual, and as a result infuses a performance with extraordinary energy and humanity.

"Many actors are embarrassed by movement, so produce visually unsatisfying theatre," says Desmond Jones, one of the most respected mime teachers in England. "Theatre should not simply be about actors declaiming on stage, and Complicite understand this. Most drama schools, with the exception of Guildhall, do not teach mime properly, and relatively few directors are capitalising on the public interest in physical theatre."

Mime today is less about visual trickery and more about creating naturalistic, visual performance. It is a medium that can translate circus skills into a narrative. In Ha Ha Ha, one half of the clown duo Okidok throws a back somersault to indicate surprise. This exaggerated emotional response is conveyed with far greater impact than any number of words.

Because it transcends the barriers of language, mime should be celebrated and recognised as an eloquent and collective medium of dramatic, theatrical expression. Decroux, considered by many to be the "father of modern mime", remarked: "The day an actor appears on stage without his body, he is justified in neglecting the art of the body." As the art of movement, mime should have a place in the work of every stage performer.

For details of the London International Mime Festival (www.mimefest.co.uk)