Sadler’s Wells Theatre
London

21 May 2024

Maggie Foyer

It was a very slow fade on the final figure standing motionless in Maguy Marin’s May B, and necessary to give time for reflection on this epic piece of theatre. It is a masterpiece of simplicity, portraying the essence of humanity, not in heroic deeds but in scraps of eccentricity and human weakness. The group of ten performers, male and female are of indeterminate age; their faces, each a grotesque individual moulded in clay. They are dressed in sloppy clothes of uniform parchment colour in a soft draping fabric, which could easily turn them into a Rodin sculpture – if only they would discover a noble purpose and take a stand! Their very presence is a mystery. After all, why are we here? What purpose do we serve?

Compagnie Maguy Marin in May B
Photo: Hervé Deroo

Creating a theatre work in the manner of conceptual art is a minefield that can end up well-meaning but ultimately meaningless. However, when it succeeds as it does so spectacularly as in May B one can only wonder at how skilfully Marin has judged each section: how long should the group shuffle, how slight should a movement be, when to move in unison and when to go AWOL.

May B was premiered in 1981 in Angers. Maguy Marin had consulted Samuel Beckett about her intentions to use his work to inspire her choreography and although he never saw the work, he was supportive of Marin’s idea of creating a Beckettian world in dance theatre. The physical inactivity and deep thought, so evident in his plays, has found equally powerful expression in this extraordinary work.

Characters from Beckett’s plays make an appearance. Krapp, Pozzo and his slave Lucky arrive as guests and it is Pozzo who nabs a substantial portion of the birthday cake, much to the chagrin of the others. The character, not featured, but there in spirit is the unremittingly optimistic Winnie from Happy Days. Her blind belief that today is another happy day, her endless search for what to do next, to find objects and actions that would give meaning to her life seems to be the driving force for this crazy gang.

Compagnie Maguy Marin in May B
Photo: Hervé Deroo

The contrasts are extreme: the group respond in typical programmed behaviour to the arrival of a birthday cake, gleefully mouthing ‘Happy Birthday to You’. They hop into line on the martial music and march in step, when a conflict develops, they take sides and rail against the opposition. Yet each of the ten is an original and perfectly unique – warts and all. The drive for procreation is celebrated in deviant fashion with a stageful of happy wankers. But in between the selfish, the needy and the stealers of overlarge slices of cake, come shards of love, a quick kiss, a caring glance.

A good deal of the work is accompanied only by grunts or shuffles, but the music chosen captures the essence brilliantly. The slow opening as stationary figures appear from the gloom, is accompanied by Schubert’s Winterreise:  The Organ-Grinder (Der Leiermann) who, ‘stands barefoot or shuffles/ On the frozen ground’. It is both desolate and unbearably beautiful. For the final section as the company arrive having travelled from nowhere with their battered suitcases, hats and coats, Marin uses Gavin Bryars’ composition, Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet. The tremulous, grainy voice repeats the text on a loop while the music builds in layers. It is a voice that seems to have experienced the vision we see on stage and is utterly compelling and absolutely right. It is back to Schubert’s lieder for the final image, and one for our age; a man with a suitcase in a time of displaced people looking for a home somewhere on the planet. The words of the song, Der Doppelgänger, draw mythical associations with death. The work is over forty years-old but as timeless as human folly.