Mime is always an exercise in belief suspension. Admittedly, this runs true for all theatre, to a greater or lesser degree. But when language and props are removed, all that’s left is an idea and how to execute it with nothing more than physical movement and facial expressions. It’s a tough thing to pull off – and sadly, Für Elise just misses the mark.
One of the biggest let-downs isn’t really mimed at all. The story – Francois, a lonely Parisian, recounts how he loved and lost his true amour, Elise – is partially fleshed out with subtitles written in English and spoken in French. It’s a neat idea, save for the fact that the writing is often so small as to be illegible (held as it is by the actors on a small card, rather than projected onto the backdrop).
The other problems come from the fact that when the imagined scenario is too confusing or too indistinct, it’s very hard to follow the narrative. As Francois stumbles around the city chasing after his love, it’s very hard to tell where we’re supposed to be: a market? A café? A zoo?
It’s a shame, because the cast are all working very hard and there is talent among the hitches. The main players are particularly strong, and both Francois and Elise have beautifully expressive faces. Elise in particular is able to convey so much with just a light flick of her large eyes. Francois too inhabits the role with his whole body, shuffling around with world weary ennui one moment, flushed with joy the next.
When the action is more narrowed down, things work better. As we see Elise at home, the surrounding players morph into lampshades, crackling fires and supper trays. It works well in sharper, more narratively-significant contexts as well – at a wedding, in a rowing boat or, best of all, a prison cell. There’s especially good use of lighting here, as we see Francois move through frustration, longing, and finally despair. The soundtrack, too, is perfectly suited to each scene. A mixture of Satie, Debussy, Ravel and the title work by Beethoven help to set the mood – whimsical, and sad with it. But it’s not quite enough to redeem a meandering show.