By Katherine Baird
The performance festival SLAP is a brilliantly accessible opportunity to express new and exploratory art, and The Faun Project certainly does both. A collaborative work between choreographers (award-winning Beth Cassani and Joseph Mercier of the performance company PanicLab) it succeeds in being cognitively and aesthetically engaging, a sociological spectacle that seeks to speak with you rather than at you.
As the audience files into the intimate studio space of York’s Theatre Royal, they are serenaded by the conspiratorial ramblings of the typical millennial. A square of bright artificial grass that does not try to pretend to be real takes up the stage, upon which characters stand or slump as they idly ignore their friend’s passionate speech on 9/11. Alongside his insistence that “jet fuel can’t melt steal beams!” are the bleats of animals and-the show’s most persistent feature-the sound of many millennial mouths chewing gum. Coupled with glazed expressions and slack moving jaws, the constant wet chews reinforce the image of grazing animals, of young and apathetic fauns. At times the noise made me physically angry, and the inability to focus on what was being said was frustrating and distracting. This is, it would seem, the point, so the torturous empathy is skilfully established. However, if you suffer from misophonia, this would be a show to miss. If you enjoy ASMR, you’ll probably have a brilliant time.
The lone speaker (Liam Morgan) provides somewhat of an ironic backing-track as physicality and dance seem to deny concern in the face of fears that “Nikki Minaj is a lizard person” or that Donald Trump has a time machine. The references are relatable and familiar, from a personified twitter feed, to ensure that we see a degree of ourselves in what may otherwise be simply strange creatures in a quirky world. Warped club music exists alongside the swell of the classical and the trill of Kate Bush, none seeming out of place and all apparently infectious for those onstage and off (an audience member beside me could not help but dance a little in his chair).
It succeeds in being impressively showy with substance, a reaction between pop-culture and politics fizzing with energy and burning out into apathy. The choreography is an intriguing collision of the robotic and the animalistic, mechanically jerking limbs coupled with the flailing hooves and horns of a demented goat. It sounds funny, and it is-the show’s triumph is being funny in the right places and ways. A girl becomes a kind of human burrito by rolling herself up in the fake grass, another “nopes” out of conversation by merrily trotting offstage, a boy battles for his indifferent friends’ attention by calling their names repeatedly to absolutely no avail. More darkly humorous, one declares that burgers are made of human meat…as he eats one. The bizarre contorting dance is also strangely sinister, often seeming obligatory and dictated by the puppeteering music, performed with grim determination or as manic frolicking.
The innovative choreography undoubtedly relies on performers capable of the challenge, which it fortunately has in the young talent of Morgan along with Holly Clemitshaw, Maddison Stevenson and Alexha Tomey-Alleyne. Underpinning the captivating movements is true technical skill, impressive timing, synchronisation, and applaudable gymnastic feats. In such a small space, every step is measured and every prop an obstacle. Among a mesmerising solar system of disco balls, the fauns orbit the sparkly globes and each other in a manner holding both precision and playfulness. As clear individuals within an ensemble, the solitude, the shallow and at times the sexual is in contrast to the unstable and political, none of which appear to enjoy actual freedom in their expression. It represents youth subculture as driven by the body and the mind, succumbing to the inevitable and experiencing the experimental. Trapped in two halves, in the overlap of the ordinary and the absurd, the piece argues we might transform. I also note that the performers seem to be referred to by their actual names-a bridge to reality or an aid to believable performance, it’s an interesting detail nevertheless. The ultimate feeling is one of being part of a conversation which continues long after being shepherded from the theatre.