Review: Jakob Ahlbom’s Lebensraum

Horror! Theatre director Jakob Ahlbom has returned with new play Lebensraum, an adaptation of the 1920 Buster Keaton movie, called ‘The Scarecrow’.

Although it was an originally a comical farce about two farmhands competing for the marriage of a farmer’s daughter, Ahlbom uses similar characters and plays with the themes explored in the film, teamed with his acclaimed surreal storytelling techniques.

Two men who seem similar in character go about their daily lives in a small apartment anchored with a dizzying array of nifty easy-home-living adaptations. Cups, bottles and other condiments hang from strings as they dine, swinging the contraptions across the table hither and thither comically.

Fridge doors and often other storage compartments open and close in tandem operated by the two men as they prove their self-sufficiency.

But with all the shortcuts they use to function day to day, they are missing the female touch. Appearing as scientists, they work tirelessly on a mannequin-doll hoping to bridge the gap. However, both seem to have his own ideas for the doll. Whilst one suggests that they need a woman for domestic household chores, the other doesn’t agree and wants to adore and look after her. Agendas run riot and as the doll becomes more lifelike, the men soon begin to wonder whether what they had originally actually worked.

Ahlbom takes inspiration from the original film with the use of props and ingenious set-design such as chairs, walls and small kitchen cupboards where actors disappear and appear from. Riveting physical theatre and constant brawls through mime and dance keep the audience continuously engaged. There was also the classic leaping through the girl stunt which Buster Keaton performed in the film Sherlock Jr (1924), a stunt which was turned into a magic trick. Take a look at the original video.

Apparently Criss Angel has already done a version of it in his TV show.

An accompaniment by Almo Race Track provides psychedelic rifts, abstract piano scores and other alternative rock compositions during the performance. The duo even matched with the set participating in the ensemble at times.

The doll narrative is always going to be a little suggestive and perhaps dicey. Two demanding men and a doll which they’ve created can appear to be borderline perversion. Ahblom also ventures into Frankenstein territory, where the men are seen examining the doll during an invasive surgical procedure, trying to fix her, not realising her senses are intact.

I’m unsure whether the feminists would agree with this part, but there is a reprise and she does get even.

Fighting past the obvious (and a few provoking dance manoeuvres) which were harmless within the slapstick arena, the star of the show and a mesmerising watch was Silke Hundertmark with her flawless portrayal of the robot-doll-reincarnation.

As the ensemble danced around each other madly, interacting through acrobatics and clever illusionism stunts, there was a clear sense of insanity. The repetitions of the dance moves were hypnotic, creating a surreal dreamlike world almost like a spiralling dance-mantra.

Although the mime and stunt performances appears to be slower generally speaking compared to the film, it does make you question the ability of the actors of today and yesteryear in the sense that Keaton was known for his almost inhuman fast paced stunts.

The robustness in performances between Keaton and Joe Roberts in the film version especially the famous table scene might be underwhelming if you’re to compare with Ahlbom’s rendition.

And it will always be difficult to recreate that of a mime-stunt performance master known for doing moves which some theatre mime actors might not be able to achieve. Keaton had broken many bones in his body over the course of his career, some of which he didn’t even know.

Lebensraum is good example of just how you can adapt a comical-film classic into something creepy, surreal and equally comedic. It’s also a deserving play to celebrate the 2018 Mime Festival and should surely return like Ahblom’s successful Horror! play.

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