Photo – Fraser Cameron
Into the glittering and velvet-adorned surrounds of the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent bursts a gangly young man in snug grey suit, dancing furiously onto the stage, the flashing lights and funky music inspiring his energetic and dorky moves. This is Trygve Wakenshaw, part mime, part performance artist, part clown and all-around storyteller, with a dash of stand-up comedian about him, even though he doesn’t speak. Well, mostly not.
While being billed as “silent sketch comedy” is a bit of a misnomer, and even describing it as “physical comedy” would be somewhat inaccurate due to the use of onomatopoeic vocalisations being a big component as well, it would be fair to say that this show is certainly “dialogue minimal”. If anything, the rare occasions in which an intelligible word is uttered seem almost jarring, and arguably unnecessary, as the majority of the time the physical and vocal representations are more than enough to get across what is being mimed.
Although that of course is one of the things about this kind of humour, since it is intrinsically reliant on the audience’s capacity to engage their imagination and make the intuitive leap in recognising what Wakenshaw is conjuring with his sounds and movements alone, not everyone will “get” each joke at the same time. For any performer using these kinds of techniques, it will always be part balancing act and part guessing game, when devising and testing out their material to determine how much they have to “explain the joke”. Indeed, sitting amidst the crowd one can feel the palpable ripples of comprehension ahead of the peals of laughter, and if you listen closely can often identify outliers who clearly are either befuddled over what the majority are amused by, or those for whom the jokes clearly “click” fractionally faster than for those around them.
The “sketch comedy” description is fairly apt though. Topped and tailed by momentary reprisals of his limbs-askew dance entrance, his new show Nautilus is a collection of skits which could all be broadly termed as a form of mime. Although unlike traditional mime, most are punctuated with a near constant stream of vocalisations which comprise both sound effects, but are also a type of ersatz dialogue. Usually wordless, these substitutions for speech take the form of what me might call “comprehensible gibberish”.
It is a technique which will be highly familiar to anyone who has ever watched the Aardman stop-motion animated show Shaun the Sheep. The various lightly-anthropomorphised farmyard animals converse via “baas” and “woofs” that display a degree of intonation which can be clearly understood in terms of their intent if not, shall we say, their vocabulary. The same even applies to the human farmer in the show, who utters strings of frustrated gibberish that are comparably comprehensible to the animal noises.
Wakenshaw fills his various scenes with such noises to flesh out not only action but character, as he physically acts out various improbable, hilarious and even downright surreal encounters in his extraordinarily limber, almost contortionist performance. Many of his scenes are essentially standalone, building to a conceptual punchline, while others contain recurring roles in a kind of micro storyline, not dissimilar from the ongoing characters in the TV sketch shows of yesteryear like Uncle Arthur or Con the Fruiterer from The Comedy Company. And, much like the sets of some of the great stand-up comedians of our time like Eddie Izzard, a few seemingly one-off characters and scenarios will be referenced in unexpected callbacks later in the show.
Sketches include insights into the interior lives of backup singers, genital lice, cowboys, chickens crossing roads, the bedtime rituals of a screeching velociraptor, and the angst of the crucified Jesus Christ wanting to go for a swim. Some of his more high-concept sketches veer towards deconstruction of his own artform, such as one in which he portrays a literally silent standup comedian’s set with no noises whatsoever, who then coerces some audience participation from… himself, whom he then proceeds to mock and abuse for being a professional mime.
Possibly the conceptual high point came in another segment in which a reprisal of an earlier barroom sketch has a customer ordering a drink, only for an actual Coke can prop to be interjected into the scene. Rapidly switching between the barman and the customer, Wakenshaw descends into a mime’s equivalent of an existential crisis, as the real physical object refuses to conform to the rules of mimed reality, such as falling through the surface of the imaginary counter it is placed on, clattering onto the stage.
One doesn’t want to give away too much of the actual content of the show for fear of spoiling the surprise, as much of the joy is in observing Wakenshaw at work. This comes not only from observing his physical and vocal virtuosity in crafting scenes and character from an empty stage, but in the process of discovery, that aforementioned imaginative leap for the audience of feeling the penny drop.
One question that is probably worth broaching however is whether this show is appropriate for children. The answer is… probably? It depends on how imaginative and sensitive your child may be, as it is most likely simply going to go over their heads half the time, as it is not designed as a kids’ show. Obviously, a fully clothed and largely nonverbal mime act is technically almost incapable of doing anything too overtly offensive in terms of language or imagery. Yet once one engages in the narratives that are being conjured in the audience’s collective mind’s eye, there are certainly aspects which are lewd, sacrilegious, violent and profane.
They are also not apolitical, either, as probably the most sustained recurring thread in the show is essentially a riff on the topical hot-button issue of sexual assault and misconduct. This “runner” features an ongoing smoking scumbag character being involved in scenes with Rapunzel, a cow, a sheep, and eventually even marrying a chicken under false pretenses, each working as metaphors to illustrate the old “no means no” catchphrase, revived in a post-Weinstein climate.
Clever, surprising, outrageously frenetic and hysterically funny, Trygve Wakenshaw brings an abundance of talent to his disarmingly good show Nautilus. Catch it if you can.
2018 Sydney Festival
Venue: Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent | Mertion Festival City, Hyde Park NSW
Dates: 23 – 27 January 2018
Tickets: $46 – $32