Simsalabim Productions, France, 55mins
Voila! Europe Festival, London | November 9-22, 2020
Nick Awde | THE X REPORT
The Escape of Iris Dupont – aka L’Evasion d’Iris Dupont – is a solo mask piece made as a direct artistic response to our Covid times. And although devised and performed within the specific setting of lockdown in the South of France, it’s delightfully universal.
‘Delightfully’ is an odd word of choice perhaps, but the success of this piece lies very much in finding the positive at the moment and celebrating it while acknowledging the paradox of how the social animal that is humankind has had to save itself (from itself) through isolation.
With smatterings of French, mainly public services announcements subtitled in English, Freya Stang’s pensioner, who lives alone, suddenly finds her routine of cleaning her impeccable home in a sleepy provincial town interrupted by news flashes announcing the invasion of the virus and lockdown. Like wartime bulletins, each signs off with “Vive la république!” – “Long live the Republic!”
New regulations are continually announced, rapidly corralling older people in their own home and in care homes into an utterly cut-off existence. A clock ticks relentlessly, pushing Iris deeper into quarantine, and as the radio blares out “While at home take care of your loved ones!”, the minutiae of her daily habits become a poignant lifeline: laying madeleines on a plate, hoovering, dusting, expanded by new routines prompted by the radio such as reading, workouts, dancing with herself.
Running gags build as she tries to follow the rules and impose order on her own life, but as the daily totals of cases and deaths mount, her ennui grows exponentially – as do the rapture and despair. And then one day activity starts to enter from outside – church bells, a mask left at her door – along with the grim reports of older people dying in care homes with no one to comfort them.
So one day she escapes, and what has so far been a filmed stage production before a present audience, now becomes a roaming street video as Iris wanders her town. It’s clear that she’s not breaking any law nor is she fleeing, seeking haven elsewhere. Going outside is her breakout and her reconnection, resetting her normal solitude in place of the imposed isolation.
In Simsalabim’s production, Stang keeps focus throughout as performer and director, her dutifully restrained physicality signalling the nuances of Iris’s moods and changes. The action is well paced and never stops long enough to wallow in itself (a pitfall of mask theatre) – in fact the non-dialogue fits the cloying silence of quarantine, limned by the default look of Iris’s mask (resigned bemusement I’ll hazard).
With Elisabeth Mazauric on camera, Stang connected with the world narrative by using their daily allowance of 60 minutes exercise to film the outside scenes. And it’s an interesting transition, the strangely deserted town evoking ‘The Day After…’ scenarios as the camera follows her around the town’s empty squares and streets. Eventually Iris encounters other town inhabitants – real-life – who greet her from a distance.
The creative team convincingly make a little go a long way: Rika Deryckere’s chintzy painted interior of Iris’s flat, costumes by Françoise Schira with the help of Philippe Schira, large marionettes by Solenne Capmas, while Didier Peigle’s sound design offsets the radio flashes with Vivaldi, pop, chamber folk and birdsong.