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Plays Without Words

Published January 10, 2013

As the deceptively named London International Mime Festival opens its 37th season, we broke the rules and spoke to its creator. 

“We made a little festival in 1977. It was a huge success in a small place. It lasted a month, everything was sold out and we saw there was an appetite for this sort of work. It’s just grown since then.”

Joseph Seelig, Director and creator of the London International Mime Festival, describes one of the capital’s most successful and long-running festivals with such simple clarity, but what exactly is ‘this sort of work’?

The London International Mime Festival isn’t actually a festival of mime at all. Yes, its production are resolutely not caught up in a textual tangle and are free from wordy worries, but if you’re expecting a beret-topped, pale-faced imaginary box-dweller around every corner, you’ll be as disappointed as the face paint suppliers who had been rubbing their hands together with energetic, soundless glee.

“It’s entertainment which is performed in a variety of different styles which do not rely on or even use text, spoken word or language,” Seelig, who founded the festival more than 30 years ago, explains. A quick glance at this year’s collection of productions helps bring home the diversity of speech subordinating entertainment on offer. There are aerialists exploring ideas of losing oneself, puppets telling a personal tale of life amid the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Beckettian acrobats and even juggling inspired by iconic dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch.

“We still have to deal with certain preconceptions each year,” Seelig says, “but that’s no big deal, we’re very happy to do it. We are running a successful event, so it more than justifies the effort that we put into it.”

What a success it is. Though Seelig describes the work of the early years as “probably much more hit and miss”, the quality and interest must always have been apparent. You could not continue running such a festival for more than 30 years without it. You also could not secure Arts Council funding. A quick glimpse at the companies to have performed over the years presents a roll call of the most innovative and playful; Complicite, Kneehigh, The Right Size, Told By An Idiot, Improbable and Shunt, to name just the UK representatives.

This year is no different. Among the productions on offer, Seelig is brimming with excitement about the return of the French Company 111 and its production Plan B, restaged this year to mark its 10th anniversary.  The production, which Seelig calls a “seminal piece of visual theatre that was, and still is, a landmark”, toys with perceptions of gravity using circus, dance and optical illusion.

Les Ballets C De La B’s The Old King, set at the birth or death of a world, by contrast, “has the same grandeur as something like King Lear,” Seelig tells me. “It’s really affecting. It’s amazing. It’s theatre that is worth getting out of your chair to come and see.”

“If you were energetic,” he says, “you could actually see every show in the festival.” To do so, you would have to cartwheel your way – well, you could walk, but that just doesn’t seem in the spirit of it – from the South Bank Centre to the Royal Opera House and on to the Barbican, via Soho theatre, Jackson’s Lane, Platform theatre and the Roundhouse. It would be quite some feat of schedule juggling, but Seelig is proud that it is possible because the festival has never grown to behemothic proportions, rather sticking to 15 to 18 productions drawn from four or five hundred seen by him and fellow festival Director Helen Lannaghan in the course of a year, prioritising quality over quantity.

Despite his well deserved pride and belief in LIMF, a hint of annoyance creeps into Seelig’s voice with the thought of justifying its existence. I suspect every year for the last 37 people have asked why he runs the festival, why it’s necessary and what the advantage of visual theatre is. Marcel Marceau, for all his be-gloved fame, has created a very niche view of mime, while, as Seelig says, “If you ask someone if they like puppetry, people always think of it in terms of something for children, like Andy Pandy. But you’ve got War horse, you’ve got The Lion King, you’ve got Avenue Q. Puppetry is all over the place in the West End.”

In a year when Blind Summit’s puppets helped bring London 2012’s opening ceremony to life, when giant puppets spectacularly emerged from the Liverpool Docks in Sea Odyssey and Piccadilly Circus Circus brought a plethora of visual pleasures to London’s streets, perceptions of visual theatre should have opened out, the taste for something a little different whetted.

Seelig is confident that this will be another successful year. His programme is strong and, let’s be honest, he knows what he’s doing. This is no high wire act any more, LIMF has a reputation as do the companies taking part. The regular audience knows what to expect while new audiences are eager to have their eyes opened.

“It’s very hard work,” Seelig says of programming the festival, “but it’s hugely enjoyable. You just hope that what you saw on a balmy, beautiful warm evening somewhere in France or Germany will actually have the same effect, weave the same magic, on a cold January night in London.”

Three and a half decades of experience says it probably will (but it says it without the use of words).

The London International Mime Festival runs from 10 to 27 January. For a full list of productions taking part, visit