The Pleasance Grand is a space large enough to park a jumbo jet in. I’m here this afternoon to see “Infinita,” some absorbing Charlie-Chaplincy from the four-piece German mime troupe Familie Flöz. These guys are big business and they also seem to stand for theatre at its most aggressively ambitious. They have a small portfolio of shows that tour Europe and occasionally beyond. It is obviously necessary for a reviewer to commend the outstanding physical skill behind “Infinita” but it would be rather strange if each tiny mannerism was not streamlined to perfection by now. “Infinita” is surely alone amongst the productions at this year’s Fringe in having been performed since 2006.
Familie Flöz have created a unique world or an alternative species. Everybody has to wear a mask that looks faintly more snoutlike than the standard human face. “Infinita” begins as it means to go on, with a characteristically striking trick. There is a screen and some shadow theatre. The air is larded with church bells and silhouettes of the distinct sort of people who dwell in Familie Flöz’s world are filing towards what is presumably a church. Some are bearing “wasteful, weak, propitiatory flowers.” After a few moments, you realise that these figures must be somehow projected on to the screen rather than reflecting the bodies of actual, moving performers. There are simply too many of them to practicably comprise a cast.
These figures resemble mourners at a funeral – perhaps that of the four men who are depicted in this play. Yet if “Infinita” shows its characters only as infants or as elderly men, then the filing mourners must represent everybody else who comes in between. Everybody who is walking in procession, day in and day out, from infancy to dotage. The spectacle is both haunting and wonderfully melancholy. The bells indeed toll for thee.
Of course, the foursome turns out to be full of suitable spirit and va-va-voom in both the shadow of the cradle and on the edge of the grave. The central baby is so amazingly lifelike in his subtlest movements that you might question whether the most skilful acting at this year’s Fringe has gone into producing his dumbshow. There is an imaginative scenario in which the baby ends up climbing on to a gigantic chair, as well as some daringly awkward observations of whatever children have instead of sexuality. On the other side of the hill, we witness so much horseplay in the old people’s home that it looks like the least depressing old people’s home in human history.
The design of some of the ensemble’s devices is recognisably Chaplinesque in its genius. In one standout scene, the elderly men abandon a radio after they realise that they are channelling its signal through their walking sticks.
As I have commented before, the uniqueness of Familie Flöz slips on and off with the masks. If “Infinita” was performed barefaced, it would have not been around for twelve years and it would be not now playing in an aircraft hangar to a daily audience of hundreds. There is something very frightening about the masks. They are ostensibly comical and suggestive but the eyes never blink – the lips never move – and the flesh is as eerily shiny as that of burns victims.
These faces will trigger or somehow relocate a primal repulsion at disfigurement. Something very keen will jump up from the base of your mind, the same factor with which people react to the frozen eyes of the dead. I can picture “Infinita” being shown to an audience of small children and raising a vast chorus of wailing terror. Nonetheless, as adults we cannot realistically behave in this way and so we have to learn not to see the dead faces and to override our saner reflexes. A delicious frisson will still remain lurking below, however, a shudder of discomfort that can never melt away within the laughter.