‘I tried out for Fiddler and found my world’

Joy Sable met Amit Lahav, the man redefining mime


The wedding dress is rather pretty, with delicate floral details around a sweetheart neckline and a billowing skirt. Beneath the bodice, however, is a very hairy chest and the wearer is sporting a heavy beard. For this is no ordinary wedding, this is a scene from The Wedding, which will be shown at the Barbican Centre next week, as part of the 42nd International Mime Festival.

As Artistic Director of Gecko the theatre company putting on the show, Amit Lahav does not like definitions.The phrase “physical theatre” is often used to describe Gecko’s work, but it doesn’t adequately describe his innovative company. Audiences expecting an evening of silent Marcel Marceau-type gesturing are in for a surprise. The Wedding is a multi-lingual, dance-infused piece, which will produce, Lahav says, “a joyful, explosive reaction in people emotionally.”

It is a political piece which, he says, was born out of a sense of anger and frustration at society today. “It’s from a feeling of having the floor taken from underneath us. I’m talking about the experience of being a citizen in Britain. I developed an idea that somehow we were in a marriage as individuals with the state, and in that marriage there were questions, and those questions were to do with the contract; the sense that the contract was being altered and that feeling that we are all [both men and women] brides in a marriage where we don’t have control.

“Also the hopeful part was really a question of how do we have a different kind of union as people, a different kind of marriage, which has a positive potential to it. Within that metaphor is where the show comes from.”

Although not married himself, Lahav says that he loves weddings. “I asked a lot of people about weddings in the making of this. People from all over the world: Jewish weddings, Taiwanese, Greek, Irish…the list goes on and on. It was fascinating to learn about wedding ceremonies, what happens, what’s the narrative?”

Gecko tours extensively and has attracted favourable attention for its unique performances. “We’ve opened dance festivals and theatre festivals; we’ve been called dance theatre and new mime — we’ve been called so many things,” he says. “I think it is a very theatrical world that I make, albeit almost entirely occupied and performed by dancers. It is a hybrid in that sense, but it is not exclusively dance, and there is a narrative, so I think ‘physical theatre’ is the best we can do.”

When he talks, there is no trace of an Israeli accent, even though Lahav was born in Israel. He and his parents moved to Redbridge to be close to his mother’s family shortly after the Yom Kippur war in 1973, when Lahav was still very young. Throughout his childhood, regular visits back to his birthplace helped to strengthen his bonds with the country, and he says he has “fabulous memories” of his time there.

Lahav believes he was destined for a life in the theatre in one way or another. “I was always a communicator, somebody who liked, on a simple level, to make people laugh. On a more intrinsic level it was about my relationships with people. I wanted to have relationships with everyone in my class — if you read any of my school reports, they all would say things along the lines of, ‘He’s a lovely boy, but he often gets distracted because he talks to people!’

“I think at the heart of it, my life is about communication. I didn’t realise how that was going to play out— I thought I was going to be a businessman like my father. Then I auditioned for Fiddler on the Roof which was on at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London for a charity. And that was it. The minute I was in that environment, I realised I had found my people. I was bitten by the bug in every way.”

He studied drama at college and found himself attracted by the more physical aspects of performance. “I was always going to be drawn to the world of gesture, of physicality, which drew on more European styles of performance, styles which you would see in Poland. These were beyond traditional British storytelling styles which were all predominantly word-based plays, which I was never going to be interested in or drawn to.

“I think any of those classical forms, be they spoken or be they ballet, were far too staid and I was always more explosive, more passionate, more visceral. I was searching for something that was more entertaining. Also I found the theatre and dance I saw when I was studying very boring. I was turned off by everything I saw, so I was hankering to make things that would energise or stimulate the audience in ways I hadn’t seen.”

Working in South East Asia for two years helped to shape the ideas behind the creation of Gecko. “I really grew up in that period as I was working with street children, making theatre shows and of course, we had no shared language and no shared cultural references. We just had our own humanity, our own emotions, and those were the things that really captured my imagination and my spirit. That projected me into making a much more physical, expressive language. Then I discovered contemporary dance which fused with my experience of mime, and that enabled me to start to create my own language.”

It is a language that even the most highly trained artist may find difficult to initially absorb. “I like to work with supercharged people who are about 30 and up, because I like to work with those who have had life experience. One of the things I have to do is ‘untrain’ the performers and remind them of the child they are — their experience of being emotionally expressive and free in a way that is less controlled. I have to unwind that a little bit. The training is about freedom of emotional expressiveness. Once I can get them freed up in that way, then I can call upon their extremely precise disciplines they have developed through their years of other training, be that dance or martial arts, or circus. It is also all about breathing as well — using breath as the kind of petrol for everything they do, and that takes a little while to get used to.”

Lahav both performs and creates works for his company. “I like both and I see it as the same thing. I think if I had to choose, the creating and making is the burning part of what I feel I have to do.”

One of the earliest works he created and performed in is The Arab and The Jew, a piece about two men on opposite sides of the Arab-Israeli divide.

“When I started the company 18 years ago, I met Allel Nedjari, and he had quite a similar sort of relationship to his culture. His father was Algerian, his mother was English. So we always had slightly guarded conversations about Israel and the Middle East. One day, in one of our guarded conversations — I was protective of Israel and I think he was probably protective of the Arab cause — I think we said, why don’t we go into this and let’s challenge it. So that’s where it came from, and it was more about exploring our own personal relationship within that story — of being an Arab and an Israeli. Rather than trying to set out to create answers, it was more an exploration of our relationship.”

The Wedding promises to be what Lahav calls “a unique experience. It has a very powerful effect on people everywhere in the world. It brings people together, it makes people talk, it makes people dream and think about their place in society. It is unlike anything else in that it is incredibly imaginative and inventive. You don’t know what’s going to happen next and it has taken three years to craft the piece. So it is incredibly detailed and skilled.

“There are 15 languages spoken in the show — which could be a put-off — but none of those are important because the language of the show is physical, and it is about how people communicate, and I think there is a real joy in that. The people at the Barbican will love that, because London is probably the most multi-cultural city in the world, so for that reason, this is its homecoming.”

Gecko: The Wedding is on at the Barbican, January 24-26

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