A plastic bag, a pair of scissors, a circle of fans. These are the modest opening ingredients for the surprise hit of last summer’s Edinburgh Fringe, a new version of which is now being shown as part of the London International Mime Festival. The buzz around Compagnie Non Nova’s show in Edinburgh was improbable to say the least. The show, described in a tone of breathless yet ridiculous wonder by those who were lucky enough to stumble across it, essentially involves a chorus of dancing plastic bags. Not the most auspicious of premises.
But the giddy superlatives thrown at L’Après-Midi D’un Foehn in Edinburgh turn out to be wholly justified. It is rare, as an adult and particularly as a regular theatregoer, to be truly knocked out with wonder, but Compagnie Non Nova achieve this feat with the least likely of materials. Plastic bags, fluttering in the bare branches of trees or skittering along the pavement with leaves and cigarette butts, have become almost emblematic of rubbish. A symbol of throwaway consumer culture – the ultimate trash. So it is doubly surprising how beautiful they are rendered by Compagnie Non Nova’s ingenious transformation. Floating, falling, spinning in balletic poses, the flimsy stars of L’Après-Midi D’un Foehn are absurdly gorgeous to look at.
The show opens with performer Cécile Briand alone in the gloomy circular space, slowly and meticulously cutting and sellotaping a pink plastic bag into a vaguely humanoid shape. Briand’s unhurried precision is oddly captivating in itself, inspiring a still hush of expectant attention. So quiet and unapologetically dawdling is this beginning that when the plastic bag that Briand has carefully placed in the centre of the stage begins to rustle, billow and finally pirouette, the magic and delight are all the greater. Gasps and giggles ripple through the audience as this delicate plastic figure leaps and twirls, later joined by partners, playmates and antagonists, all of whom dance enchantingly to the strains of Debussy’s ‘Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune’.
The piece feels so beautifully effortless that it is easy to underestimate the artistry involved. Thanks to some cleverly directed gusts of air (huge credit to Pierre Blanchet’s “wind design”), these plastic bags take on movement, grace and even emotions, inspiring the same sort of gooey, irrational affection as Tom Hanks’ ill-fated volleyball companion in Castaway. The combination of simplicity and ingenuity is remarkable; never did I think I would be able to say that I was emotionally invested in the fortunes of a plastic bag. As well as demonstrating the skill and invention of Compagnie Non Nova, this is equally testament to the extraordinary ability of music to invest the simplest of scenes with compelling drama, and to the inspiring power of the imagination.
There is, of course, the danger that – despite its undeniable beauty – this all becomes as insubstantial and throwaway as its fluttering protagonists. After all, how many different ways is it possible to manipulate plastic bags with just one performer and a few fans? There are a handful of moments in which the wonder begins to fade and the piece sags a little, but the company pull out just enough surprises to keep their audience enraptured, while the short running time is cannily judged. Carried on the undulating currents of the piece, my mind skips throughout between themes such as imagination, love, power, the creation and fragility of life – all lightly hinted at by Compagnie Non Nova’s fleeting images before being lightly blown away. The enduring impression, however, is of the beauty that art is capable of finding in the most unlikely of places.