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Review: Mnemonic, The Secret Garden, and The Herds
‘Quick evocations’: Khalid Abdalla, centre, with Richard Katz, Laurenz Laufenberg, Kostas Philippoglou and Sarah Slimani in Mnemonic. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

This is not quite what I remembered. Going into Simon McBurney’s Mnemonic, I had in mind a cascade of images from its first staging 25 years ago. I recalled it as a show that, while dextrously physical, aimed to embody an abstraction. It sought to portray not just specific memories but the act of memorising itself, illustrating how events become randomly linked, with each reminiscence being unstable and remade every time we look back.

It was a mind-changing theatrical event, flowing from the ice age to our current age. It spanned the discovery of an ancient body to the uncovering of family history, from academics competing to lasso a long-lost biography to lovers trying to find a future.

Features from the 1999 show—like the frozen body and the thawing lovers—remain, but much dialogue and speech have been reinvented for a new cast. Khalid Abdalla, who seamlessly morphs from narrator to romancer to corpse, is compelling. The qualities with which Complicité has forever altered the stage are apparent throughout.

Three puppeteers synchronise their movements by listening to each other’s breath.

There are quick evocations, like a Eurostar journey captured with bands of flashing lights, and the merging of past and present, with figures receding into mist through polythene curtains. Inert objects are animated; a chair, initially a throne of memories, transforms into a spindly character. Most importantly, the reach spans across epochs and continents. At one point, there’s a babel of different languages; at another, a genial meeting of Londoners with Egyptian and Greek heritage pondering the fate of the ancient world. Turbulence rules both the climate and our minds. It disturbs but also intertwines us.

Still, this reincarnation is more deliberate, more didactic, and more confusing than the original. Abdalla presents the opening monologue with ease and authority. He muses on unexpected spurs to memory and the unreliability of reminiscence, steering past tricky moments with a light touch. Audiences, wearing eye masks, are invited to run their fingers along the veins of a leaf, as if tracking family histories.

His words promise an investigation of memory that is not fully delivered in the following scenes. These scenes underline the near-impossibility of piecing together a past that lies beyond our memories. Too much is made obvious. Eileen Walsh, such a singular presence, operates on default Celtic mournfulness. Why do she and Abdalla keep using each other’s names when alone? Are they forgetting who they are? A company fueled by such acting talent and visual imagination can make it evident that we all need our own stories without spelling it out. These are the lineaments, not the flesh, of a groundbreaking show.

It is a lovely thing that adapters Holly Robinson and Anna Himali Howard have done with The Secret Garden. The plot of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel, with its surprising spring, is fully delivered: a pampered, neglected orphan is sent from India to Yorkshire and unlocks her heart when she turns the key to a secret garden. Yet, the book’s colonialism and sentimentality have been remade. Mary Lennox (nicely sour Hannah Khalique-Brown) now has an Indian mother; a boy behaving petulantly is compared to the British viceroy; there are no miracle cures.

In Anna Himali Howard’s fleet production, the air is thick with secrets—doors are closed, sentences cut short—but there is lightness and flight as new life is whisked out of unexpected places. A scarf becomes a flapping crow; a fur stole turns into a squirrel; the red patch on the palm of a hand flutters around as a robin. Jai Morjaria’s lighting beautifully conjures Indian warmth, then drains its gold to the paleness of loss and a northern English winter.

I am, though, puzzled by Leslie Travers’s design, which, having blanked out nature with a wall, instead of opening the door of the secret garden onto the verdure of Regent’s Park itself, creates artificial blooms and foliage with paper chains, streamers, and bright tissue fans. Pretty enough but missing the point of the natural rebirth. Oh, for a production that really used the splendour of this public garden.

One of the most vital events of the next theatrical year has just been launched. Artistic director Amir Nizar Zuabi and producer David Lan hope to propose a new way of thinking about climate change, aiming to provoke not a scientific reaction but an emotional response. They are part of the team that, in 2021, created The Walk, when Little Amal, a 12ft puppet of a refugee girl, walked from Turkey to the UK, stirring streets and hearts.

The Herds promises to spread even wider ripples. In the spring of 2025, a herd of life-size puppet animals will set off from the Congo Basin on a 20,000km journey to the Arctic Circle, forced to move by the climate crisis. The first creatures, made at Wimbledon College of Arts, London, were designed and developed in Cape Town by Ukwanda Puppets and Designs Art Collective. These are Kinshasa beasts: gazelles with eyes like lumps of coal and matchstick legs, their bodies reaching to the waists of the puppeteers who lead them.

Grazing, sniffing the air, flinching, they bring home how much expressiveness is to do with movement, attitude, and stillness rather than facial tics. Remarkably, they are made from corrugated cardboard.

There are lions too and statuesque kudus with long, spiraling antlers. These animals take three puppeteers to operate; inside, they synchronize their movements by listening to each other’s breath. The herd will grow as it travels, with new species particular to different regions being added. Importantly, the company aims to train new puppeteers and makers at each stop. Before leading us to a patch of green amid Edwardian terraces where a lion brought down a gazelle, Zuabi explained, “We are inviting you into the kitchen. What we are doing is chopping the vegetables. We have not made food yet.” They are, though, already en route to nourishing new audiences.

Star ratings (out of five)
The Secret Garden ★★★★

  • Mnemonic is at the Olivier, National Theatre, London, until 10 August

Source: The Guardian