Complicité is an international touring theatre company, based in London. Founded in 1983 by Annabel Arden, Fiona Gordon, Marcello Magni and Simon McBurney, the Company is now led by Artistic Director Simon McBurney OBE with Executive Director Amber Massie-Blomfield and Senior Producer Tim Bell. Between 1993 and 2018 all of the company’s work was produced by Judith Dimant.
The Company has played in more than 40 countries across the world, won more than 50 awards and been described as:
“…the most influential and consistently interesting theatre company working in Britain.”The Times
Learning and engagement are central to our work and Complicité’s award-winning Creative Engagement programme includes professional development, work in schools and colleges and participatory projects for a range of groups.
Complicité began life as a collective and this spirit of collective enquiry and of collaborative curiosity has driven the work throughout its history. The Company is famous for making its work through extensive periods of research and development which brings together performers, designers, writers, artists and specialists from diverse fields to create the works – a process now simply known as ‘devising’. Read on to find out more about Complicité’s history below.
Losing Their Accent (and Getting it Back)
There isn’t an exact equivalent for the word complicité in English, but there is a story. Jacques Lecoq began as an athlete. He travelled postwar Europe exploring the masks and bawdy comedy of Italian commedia dell’arte, and the way the chorus in Greek tragedy spoke directly to its audience of fellow citizens.
Returning to Paris in 1956, he founded L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq. His teaching became a kind of research, emphasising the physical economy of actors’ bodily movements as though they were playing elite sport, with every motion willed yet instinctive. Though it isn’t a mime school, it understands mime as a central part of theatre: giving an idea a physical form and comprehending it better in the process.
The principles Lecoq distilled from his experiences were disponsibilité, le jeu and complicité; something like openness, play, and shared creativity. Students developed them as they became teachers themselves: Monika Pagneux became an authority on helping people ‘re-find the life in their movement on stage’; Philippe Gaulier on the bouffon, an agent of clowning mockery. When they named themselves Théâtre de Complicité, the company – several of whom studied or taught with Lecoq, Pagneux and Gaulier – had imagined they might work mainly in France. When they started in London instead, these gaps between meaning and translation, continental Europe and Britain, performer and audience gave their work its energy. It was a happy accident that the English word ‘complicity’ carries more of a sense of conspiracy between audience and performers.
The early productions were mainly devised: built up slowly in rehearsal rooms through observation, improvisation, movement and play, tapping into local folk memories of slapstick and music-hall. In 1983, Annabel Arden, Fiona Gordon, Marcello Magni and Simon McBurney improvised Put it On Your Head on beaches, streets and outside the big theatres in London’s Covent Garden. Magni’s brash Italian and McBurney’s wimpy Englishman were adaptations of commedia dell’arte types for the English seaside.
Arden had been in a socialist feminist collective called 1982; McBurney had performed at the opening night of London’s Comedy Store in 1979, soon after Margaret Thatcher’s first election win. Alexei Sayle, Jo Brand, Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson may now seem like unlikely comparisons, but Complicité emerged from the same desire to satirise the starkly contrasted greed and squalor of 1980s Britain. ‘There’s something about laughter which gives you a physical engagement with what’s going on’, McBurney has said. ‘So often, in a theatre, 60 per cent of the people wish they weren’t there. So how do you make that evening a most exceptional time?’
More Bigger Snacks Now, similar in atmosphere to Mayall and Edmondson’s TV shows The Young Ones (1982) and Bottom (1991), won the 1985 Perrier Comedy Award. A Minute Too Late – first staged in 1985 but revived in 2005 – drew on the death of McBurney’s father, an archaeologist who shaped the company’s fascination with the depth of time. But it did so through slapstick, and quotations from an unintentionally hilarious government leaflet on bereavement. The vision of office life in 1987’s Anything for A Quiet Life was Kafkaesque in the sense of surreal horror and sexual tension. With a tone somewhere between Only Fools and Horses and The Wicker Man, Burning Ambition was about the M25 motorway.
‘Interpretation is the extension of an act of creation,’ Lecoq thought. In 1989, the company moved from pure devising to a version of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit; the author’s widow reportedly thought it was the most revealing version she had seen. ‘Yes, there was a text,’ said the actor Mick Barnfather, ‘but we were experimenting and doing exercises in a similar way to find the style’. Or as McBurney put it later, the aim is to make ‘fully theatrical’ theatre, but with ‘the text as the principal melody, the bass clef as what actors are doing, and light and music and the objects onstage as harmonies’.
The company’s distinctive physical signatures strengthened as they drew in broader influences: French bistro chairs imagined as everything from a forest to actual chairs, cracked plates as the moon in its phases or a saint’s halo, shaken books as fluttering birds. There have also been versions of theatrical classics like Shakespeare, Beckett and Ionesco, but more often the rule of thumb looks like choosing pieces of writing others would consider unstageable. It’s been known to take up to a decade’s thinking and discussion for an idea to make it to the rehearsal room.
1992’ s The Street of Crocodiles drew on the life and works of the Polish, Jewish writer Bruno Schulz. Post-show, at the theatre bar one evening, the filmmaker Mike Dibb introduced McBurney to the writer John Berger. The first result was The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol, a production based on Berger’s Into Their Labours stories about the ending of French peasant life.
Berger guided Complicité’s sense that the great themes of the century were migration and exile, but the collaboration was just as important for him. Their performance of the living and the dead building a barn together in Lucie Cabrol helped distil Berger’s ’12 Theses on the Economy of the Dead’.
‘Until the dehumanisation of society by capitalism,’ wrote Berger, ‘living and dead were inter-dependent. Always. Only the unique egotism developed by capitalism has broken this inter-dependence. With disastrous results for the living, who now think of the dead as eliminated’. In turn, the ‘Theses’ became an enduring point of reference for the company, as though the dead were joining the chorus, or helping nail together the planks. The actor Katrin Cartlidge — Alice in Mnemonic — joined their number in 2002; in 2017, Berger; in 2022, Marcello Magni.
The name simplified from Complicité around 2000, to Complicite around 2008. It reflected a greater status in Britain and North America, but also internationally. That meant a complex touring schedule, managed by Judith Dimant as the company’s Producer between 1993 and 2018, and McBurney’s writings, collected as Who You Hear It From in 2012, read like Lecoq’s postwar European explorations expanded in an era of globalization. They describe making Shun-kin (2008) out of the contrast of Japanese and Western perspectives in Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s short book In Praise of Shadows, and A Disappearing Number (2007) out of the story of the brilliant mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan against the backdrop of British colonialism in India.
Through Nitin Sawhney’s score, A Disappearing Number gained further dimensions through the mathematical complexities of Indian classical music. The resources to draw on other artforms and technologies arrived alongside the expanded geographical horizons, and Complicité used them in the same improvising spirit they used their chairs and plates.
In 2000’s The Noise of Time, a collaboration with the Emerson Quartet about the life of Dimitri Shostakovich, 2004’s Pet Shop Boys Meet Eisenstein, or 2012’s The Magic Flute with the English National Opera, it meant music, often with the involvement of McBurney’s composer brother, Gerard. That same year, in The Master and Margarita, it meant an extremely rude puppet, and, borrowing from the resources of cinema, transforming the sense of space on the stage through projected light and video.
In the radio adaptation of Berger’s To The Wedding (1997), a real motorbike zoomed from one stereo channel to another to bring the character of Tsobanakos alive. In The Encounter (2015), what initially seemed a sparse one-man show, riffing on the explorations of the structure of the brain in Mnemonic (1999), deepened through binaural microphones and stereo headphones, with McBurney’s voice in every part of the audience’s head. In collaboration with Robert MacFarlane, an adaptation of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising for the BBC World Service (2022) drew these all together. If radio usually works in the mind, this worked in the body, too.
At the end of that radio series, a burst of archive news suggests all the dark rising in 2022: nationalism, xenophobia, racism, climate breakdown. The company had returned to being Complicité around 2016, re-dedicating themselves to looking beyond borders after the Brexit referendum. Climate and Ecological Emergency has been the major preoccupation of the last few years: a new driver of the great waves of migration and exile of the twentieth century. Contemplating such an emergency, complicity could shade to responsibility and guilt, especially in a business which involves so much travel. Or it could shade to hope, and action.
If Complicité had been pioneers of projecting video onto stages, their work with Fehinti Balogun, Can I Live? (2021), did the precise opposite. A ‘filmed performance’ or ‘digital theatre piece’, it started as a pandemic video diary and ended with a choral moment of an audience of activists in a theatre, via a rapped, sung, joked, danced account of Balogun’s route into climate politics, and his realization of its whiteness. Black people have most to lose from encounters with the police, he argued, and often less time left over from simply trying to survive; people in Africa are among those already suffering most from global warming. The guilt is not evenly distributed. ‘I just want people to be as angry as I am and then do something,’ he told delegates who saw it at COP26, the Glasgow edition of the United Nations’ annual international climate summit.
Figures in Extinction 1.0 (2022), the first of three planned collaborations with the choreographer Crystal Pite, used human bodies and lighting effects to form animals, plants, a glacier, and a preacher in a suit denying human responsibility for climate change. Over the top, McBurney’s voice catalogued the losses in the style of a natural history documentary which quoted from Berger’s ‘Why Look at Animals’.
Increasingly, Complicité imagines its enduring, growing web of collaborative connections being like the mycelial network of roots and mushrooms in a forest floor. Berger thought that dismissing the company of the non-human was the same essential mistake as separating mind and body, and the company’s 2023 adaptation of the Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was aimed at reconnection. There were echoes and riffs from the phrasebook of physical gestures the company has built up over the past forty years: Joseph cataloguing the mimed birds in Street of Crocodiles, slapstick mimes of an uncooperative corpse and a noisy car from A Minute Too Late.
The sense of urgency is fresh, but the roots go back at least as far as Lecoq. ‘Before we engaged the human world we were obliged to observe the world of nature,’ McBurney remembers. ‘And his demand to engage and observe nature, then reflect it, embody and interpret it, were questions for us’.
Tom Overton is working on Complicite’s archive for their 40th anniversary. He catalogued John Berger’s archive at the British Library, edited the collections Portraits: John Berger on Art and Landscapes: John Berger on Artists, and his biography of Berger will be published in 2024. He works as Archive Curator at the Barbican Centre and there’s more of his writing at overton.tw.