The Centaur and the Animal @ Sadlers Wells

This was a real life comic: naff, epic, gothic, mythic, fiercely ambitious, hit-and-miss.

I didn’t have many expectations about The Centaur and The Animal. What is one supposed to expect from a show that purports to combine French ‘equestrian theatre’ with one of Japan’s greatest masters of butoh?

OK, probably not jazz hands.

Now, I am the sort of girl who regularly drags my reluctant friends to ‘avant garde’ theatre which I insist is bracingly improving and which they insist is a pile of crap. But even I, when faced with a (ten minutes late) opening scene composed of a sheet of stage-to-rafter white silk billowing to the sound of a disembodied, barely audible voice mumbling really very rubbish 19thC French poetry about bodily decay, felt just a tad trepiditious.

My feet were cold, it was Tuesday night, I hadn’t had dinner, and my bra was itching. I wasn’t sure I had the patience for this. Add in a soundtrack of discordant piano chords complete with faint digital beeping (was it an ECG signal symbolising the fragility of mankind? was it a hearing aid?) almost persuaded me to sneak out and along to Upper Street for a sneaky Ottolenghis meringue.

Ko Murobushi, painted silver, minutely contorted his way across a white strip at the front of an otherwise black stage with the admirable but excrutiating slowness that is the butoh way. The trainer and rider Bartabus swooped towards, around and beside him on a succession of gorgeous nags: now hooded in white like a monk, now draped in black with a huge pair of wings waving above his head like an evil cantering butterfly (three words I never expected to see in a row).

But it was all still so – well, so damn odd. The sort of oddness, eeked out with crepuscular solemnity, that is so pretentious it’s predictable. As I watched, my guts shrunk with impatience. I thought of carrot cake.

Then, about two-thirds of the way through, I got it. The lights came up (‘up’ being a rather optimistic term – they turned the black to mild grey) on Murobushi having apparently crash-landed from the heavens into the stage, his neck folded over and his whole shining silver body, naked but for a G-string, balancing upright, spider-like waving in the air. For the next scene he gradually (and I mean gradually) made his way back down to earth, and his body was mesemeric. Highly muscled but very thin, you could see every muscle, ligament and bone separately articulated and manipulated as this man-animal moved.

This was CGI and sci-fi; it was Avatar; it was Blade Runner; it was in fact comic book. This silver superman achieved the kind of defamiliarised, visceral shock graphic novels fetishise, and this time he was real and unenhanced before our eyes. And suddenly the horses and Bartabus fitted in much better too – they were classic dark angels, masked avengers, hooded crusaders, deus ex machina; and the entire medieval/futuristic aesthetic seemed entirely appropriate.

This was a real life comic: naff, epic, gothic, mythic, fiercely ambitious, hit-and-miss. And now I could forgive the (really very very awful) poetry and enjoy the fact that I was seeing man and beast achieve something that any film director would die for. It was all there in the flick of Murobushi’s toe, in the serpentine undulation of his spine, in the oily curve of a black gelding’s neck and the high, eerie curve of Bartabus’s wings. Animals, men and gods: transforming, fighting and embarking on inexplicably earnest quests: all in fleshy, ungimmicky, tingly human 3D.

When I did leave the theatre, I found my irritation had turned to exhilaration. Bartabus and his horses were beautiful, but I must see Murobushi again.

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