La Fin des Terres (Land’s End) by the Compagnie Philippe Genty opened on Thursday of last week to a rather lackluster reception at the National Theater. It was difficult to get away from the impression that many in the audience were uncertain about what aspect of the show they were supposed to appreciate in Genty’s combination of dance, circus and puppetry.
The look created by the company had a simplicity and versatility that was clearly the result of enormous technical wizardry. A series of sliding panels and trap doors in a false floor let performers appear and disappear as if by magic, and allowed the cropping and juxtaposition of images that gave some movements in the piece a hypnotic kaleidoscopic feel. While the magical effects made possible by the innovative set were an important part of the production, Genty showed considerable restraint, rarely letting the technical wizardry obtrude into the performance. Given the complexity of the set up, there were few technical hiccups other than the occasional loud rumble when panels were supposed to slide soundlessly across the stage.
Genty’s mixture of different art forms to take audiences into a dreamland of human-headed insects, people getting sucked into the floor and monstrous tumors that threaten to engulf the performers and the stage, certainly has plenty of visual appeal, and the handling of the giant puppets was a peerless exhibition of stagecraft, but there was, for this reviewer at least, an excessive flavor of the circus about the production. As a work of contemporary dance, La Fin des Terres lacked finesse, and the beauty of the scenes relied on creating an overall effect rather than a focus on the performers themselves. This also gave the show an air of coldness: It was more of a presentation of Genty’s vision rather than a performance given by the actors.
La Fin des Terres explores the relationship between men and women, and a scene in which a woman’s legs turn into a pair of scissors and chops off a male puppet’s penis (which was represented as a literal “one-eyed trouser snake”), left little doubt about the Freudian subtext, and may well have rather shocked some parents who had brought young children the show in the expectation of Muppet-like entertainment. The puppetry, with the use of a number of beautifully crafted over-sized puppets manipulated by numerous puppeteers were spectacular pieces of ensemble work, but such was the insistence on wowing audiences with showmanship that it was hard to settle down to what Genty might be trying to say. Most of the time, the visual spectacle was almost enough.
At the end of La Fin des Terres, technical support staff dressed in black boiler suits and strapped up with communication equipment were invited up on stage to take the curtain call with the performers. They had contributed as much as anyone to the show, and it was good to see them get their due.