As Endgame prepares to open in the West End, Charlotte Marshall finds out exactly what makes Complicite so distinctive a theatre company.
Numbers come alive in front of audiences’ eyes, the ceramic forms of puppets slowly become flesh, planks of splintering wood are thrown around the stage in fits of passion and antique books flap like birds. Welcome to the beautiful, evocative world of theatre company Complicite. Led by Artistic Director Simon McBurney, the influential organisation is heading into the West End this autumn with Samuel Beckett’s surreal, one-act play Endgame.
The first breaths of Complicite were taken over 25 years ago in 1983, by founders McBurney, Annabel Arden, Fiona Gordon and Marcello Magni. After reading English at Cambridge University and performing as part of Cambridge Footlights – the student-run comedy and drama organisation that counts John Cleese, Peter Cook and McBurney’s contemporaries Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie and Arden as members of its alumni – McBurney travelled to Paris to study under Jacques Lecoq, the legendary physical theatre actor and mime artist. On returning to London the founders, a mixture of Cambridge and Paris graduates, created what was then known as Théâtre de Complicité.
Complicite began life making people laugh, winning the Perrier Award in 1985, before moving on to produce an influential and eclectic collection of award-winning work including: The Elephant Vanishes, an adaptation of three short stories by Japanese author Haruki Murakami; The Street Of Crocodiles, inspired by the works of Polish writer Bruno Schulz; William Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure; Mnemonic, an exploration of memory; and Shun-kin, a retelling of two Jun’ichiro Tanizak stories that combined love and cruelty.
Constantly evolving, the company has always pushed itself to move in new directions and features a continually changing line-up of collaborators, as McBurney explains: “You have a name and the name wanders and changes and develops and does different things and the people do different work and they go off, we go off and do different things and we come back. It’s more like a little terrorist cell really, which allows us to do our own work when we want to do it every now and then.”
“[McBurney] delights, challenges, inspires and entertains in equal measure”
From the stage, Complicite has branched out into many different mediums, creating versions of Mnemonic and John Berger’s To The Wedding for radio, producing work with art galleries and collaborating with artists on site specific projects, such as their work with the Pet Shop Boys in 2004, taking over Trafalgar Square with a film designed to highlight the area’s history of political protest. This varied CV more than justifies McBurney’s description of Complicite as an “arts organisation” rather than a theatre company.
Complicite is referenced time and time again as a noted inspiration for many emerging theatre companies, and McBurney is clear where the company’s own early influences came from: “They are almost too numerous to mention, but I suppose living in Paris for many years I got to see theatre from very many different places, so whether it was the great German ensembles that came by or whether it was Pina Bausch and her dancers… you got to see a lot of very, very different kinds of theatre or the ways of looking at theatre, that’s what’s important.”
Lecoq’s unique method of physical theatre training is also often cited as a direct influence on Complicite’s style, with its constant awareness of movement. While the company’s theatre pieces always have a strong narrative running through them, often based around complex stories, it is the visual images they conjure that define Complicite’s style. Nica Burns, co-producer of Endgame, has vivid memories of its shows, which is why she is so pleased to be working with the company: “I first discovered Simon’s work in 1984. He is a creative visionary. Unique, multi-talented and genuinely deserves the word genius. Over the years there are magic moments that live with me from his plays: fingers becoming blackberry bushes, the horses in Lucy Chabrol, the breathtaking opening moment of Street Of Crocodiles, the extraordinary take on A Winter’s Tale. He delights, challenges, inspires and entertains in equal measure and seemingly his vat of ideas is constantly replenished.”
Complicite’s style seems to add a layer of glitter or a supernatural edge to the ordinary or mundane. This aspect of their work was highlighted in 2008 when A Disappearing Number won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play, as well as triumphing at the Critics’ Circle Awards and the Evening Standard Theatre Awards.
A drama about the mathematical collaboration between the Indian prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan and Cambridge mathematician GH Hardy hardly sounds like a thrilling prospect. However, in the hands of Complicite, A Disappearing Number became a passionate romance, not only between characters, but also with the numbers at the heart of the story. As equations filled the stage and the philosophy behind them was explored, it was impossible not to feel excited, however much thinking about your GCSE maths exam may still fill you with horror.
“This is often said and is a cliché – but with Complicite is completely true – they have stretched the boundaries of theatre”
The seemingly mundane is brought vividly to life by Complicite’s often pioneering use of technology and its ability to produce work on a vast scale. The company uses a mix of multimedia techniques alongside more traditional methods of storytelling. Louise Jeffreys, Head of Theatre at the Barbican, where Complicite has worked on numerous occasions explains: “They were one of the first companies to integrate physical theatre styles, puppetry, devised work – and more recently multimedia – to make works that illuminate our condition as human beings and touch our emotions. Simon embraces the use of larger spaces and works at scale with ease. The company works across genres, from making site-specific work and working with orchestras and string quartets to creating productions from set play texts and entirely devised pieces. This is often said and is a cliché – but with Complicite is completely true – they have stretched the boundaries of theatre.”
Exploring new ways of approaching classic texts and immersing themselves in foreign cultures is also imperative to Complicite’s progression: “What interests me,” says McBurney, “is to see different ways of looking at the world, that’s the key for me. I’ve loved working in Japan, partly because it was the way of seeing the world that was so, so different. So different from everything that I’d ever experienced and so that just opens you up to many different experiences; it’s not just that it opens you up to Japanese possibilities, it’s that once you’re forced to think in another way, like living in France and speaking in French and dreaming and learning in French, I came to literally think in another way, and that happened to me in Japan as well.” Having worked and performed in countries from America to Germany, Russia and South America, Complicite’s previous plays have sometimes relied on more than one language, or in the case of last year’s Shun-kin, have been performed completely in a foreign language.
It is this visionary multicultural approach that has led McBurney to be called “…one of the dozen or so most important theatre directors working anywhere in the world” by fellow director Stephen Daldry. But McBurney is not just a director; he will star in Endgame alongside Mark Rylance, Miriam Margolyes and Tom Hickey. His ability to both act in and direct a production is something that feels utterly normal to him, he explains, denouncing traditional labels and instead referring to himself as “a theatre maker”.
As the name would suggest, at the heart of Complicite is the idea of collaboration, giving the audience more responsibility than just turning off their phones and obeying silence when they take their seats in the auditorium: “Part of the definition of the theatre is that it is a collaborative act and in fact the people who really make the theatre are the audience because they’re looking at these idiots pretending to be other people knowing perfectly well they’re not other people and they’re standing there right in front of them pretending to be people from the bloody middle-ages or something, it’s absolutely ridiculous! But it is they who do the work, who do the imagining because as an audience we wish to imagine that’s part of humanity.”
Any Complicite fan will have a favourite moment, an image that lives in the mind longer than the length of the show, but what is McBurney’s? He laughs and rather romantically claims it is something he couldn’t quantify: “I think probably for me it’s, rather than just the things on stage, it’s the things that are off stage; the meals that we’ve had together, the times that we’ve shared that is the key. The incredible things that have happened because we’ve toured all over the world. It’s more those things that stick in my mind, not just the things on stage, you tend to forget what you’ve done… you’re always just thinking of the next thing.”
The next thing, of course, is already on the horizon, as Endgame opens in less than a month’s time at the Duchess theatre.