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Barnaby’s impressions of working with VO Compagnie at Hat Fair

Wednesday 7 July 2010 , by Barnaby Gibbons

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Working with the V.O. Companie , on their show Le Nettoyeur de Vent, for the Winchester Hat Fair was a great experience, which offered many opportunities and challenges as a performer.

As anyone who has read the translator’s note at the beginning of a play or book will know, the main difficulty in translation is how to render the piece intelligible to the reader whilst remaining loyal to the authors original ideas. Luckily for me I was working directly with the author of this piece and together we were able to create something which was both new and loyal to the original.

Charged with the role of actor-translator was especially interesting due to the particularities of the form this show used. The show is a 5-day installation based around a number of urban trees, and focuses on one Nicolas Gengoux, a tree osteopath, whose work involves de-stressing urban trees by reviving, within them, the memory of the primeval forest. (a memory which is to be found deep within their genetic ‘cellular’ and collective memory).

The subject matter is evidently far from banal and presupposes;

  • That the trees in question are sick (the lime trees in Winchester cathedral were in fine form).
  • That trees are conscious beings and share a collective consciousness.
  • That these trees can be cured by a form of psycho-spiritual-physical therapy.

All of this is in the realm of the theatre imagination but does raise the question of the AMBIGUITY of the show. By this I’m talking about what questions the passer-by may be asking.

Is this real?
Do these people (the actors) really believe this? If so are they mad or ground-breaking scientists?
Is this just a piece of theatre? If so where are the curtains, or at least the bit of rope to sit or stand behind ?

Therefore the show offered a rather long tight-rope to walk along. How to enable the passer-by let their curiosity overcome their timidity and venture into the poetic world of the Nettoyeur de Vent.

Of course, the show had already been written and performed several times before, by Didier and his team, and the methods for encouraging the public to become audience, tried and tested. The challenge was how to translate this all into English. How would the English audience react and would the same methods used in France work in England?

Le Nettoyeur de Vent is the story of Nicolas Gengoux and the experience for the public is very much based on the intimacy created between audience and the highly charismatic Gengoux. The difficulty was how to present this story of ‘one man and his trees’ when there were two of us. The dynamics of a duo, as opposed to a solo, are not the same. It was important to give enough space between Nicolas Gengoux and Peter Parkin (the English translator) so as to enable the public the facility of approach.

Another challenge was also to create a relationship other than simply actor and his translator, therefore the translator needed to be a character in the same way as Nicolas Gengoux was a character, with a history, a family, a job etc. Enter Peter Parkin, French-speaking accountant from Kew Gardens.

Kew gardens was a great find. The fact that they were involved gave enormous credibility to the project. (Peter Parkin was wearing a name badge with the Kew logo on it. This was like an ‘access all areas’ pass as far as winning over public belief.) The story was that Kew Gardens, having heard of the incredible results of Gengoux’s work on the weeping-willow around Lake Geneva, had funded his field trip to England, as part of a pilot study. If the results were conclusive then a possible training program, involving city gardeners nationwide, may well be set up. On the whole the public were convinced.
As well as giving us credibility, the Kew story also gave us a solid relationship, which not only helped ourselves as performers, but also gave the public a relationship, they could understand.

It was also important for the focus of the exchange between the public, Nicolas Gengoux and Peter Parkin to be on the work Nicolas was performing and not to be simply watching a ‘double-act’. We were playing ‘not-playing’, blurring the line between theatre and reality, between performance and lying, in order to enable the public to accept a world with slightly wider boundaries than the given norm.

In short I think the Winchester public were able to experience the poetic and beautiful world of Le Nettoyeur de Vent. I believe that over the 5 days we did manage to become “part of the landscape’ (please refer to the remit, given in the show’s publicity).
Despite Didier’s lack of English, his immense charisma drew the British ‘passer-by’ in, convincing them to leave behind any scepticism and wander through the breezy world of the Nettoyeur de vent, clothed in the willingness to believe and wrapped in a little scarf, for any drafts of doubt they might have brought with them.
The relationship between Nicolas Gengoux and Peter Parkin was credible and a lot of fun to play. It was a successful translation tool and very useful in maintaining the integrity of the show throughout the ‘export’.

I’d like to thank Didier and everyone in V.O. Cie. for their warm hospitality throughout the creation process. I would also like to reiterate Didier’s words of thanks to Sian Thomas whose belief in the project enabled it all to happen and, in so doing, broadened the perspectives of British street theatre. .


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