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Do the robot: Savanna: A Possible Landscape (MimeLondon) at the Barbican Centre (**)

London International Mime Festival is a place for less traditional fare, and a play performed entirely by robots was too delectable a treat to pass up. Unfortunately, technical mishaps and rather poor animatronics meant this interesting idea ended up being rather dull. At the Barbican Centre.

The principle behind Savanna, A Possible Landscape is simple: puppeteers, directed by master puppet director Amit Drori, use mechanical, robotic puppets to recreate the African savannah on stage. So far, so good – puppets are very “in”, and if a reviewer like, say, me, had an undue fascination with both puppets AND robots… Well, then, it would be a match made in heaven.

Sadly, though, the result is messy – for every brilliant moment, there are far too many points when robots malfunction or work incorrectly. The sad thing is that, in most cases, it isn’t so much that they don’t work, more that they’ve been incredibly poorly designed. We live in a world where complex and sophisticated robots can do remarkable things – from machinery on production lines all of the way through to the creations used in large-scale entertainment. Making robots that can do wonderful things isn’t prohibitively difficult or expensive.

In the case of Savanna, there’s a subplot about how someone (presumably Drori, but they’re never named), through a voice-over, explains how they broke down the pieces of their mother’s piano to make these devices. I couldn’t tell you if it was fictional or real, because the robots clearly have more elements than could just be found in an old grand piano, but it doesn’t really add anything to the show – if anything, it confuses further.

These robotic creations are largely constructed of wood, with complex gear/electronic systems allowing them to move wings, trunks and legs. But they’re incredibly limited – restricted to small, simple movements in most cases: a bird flaps its wings, an elephant moves its trunk, etc. The puppeteers move in between, operating these puppets either by remote control or setting them in motion – or, more often than not, fixing them when they go wrong. This happened an undue amount during the show I saw – for example, the caterpillar robot kept locking up, and couldn’t even really move of its own volition. Of the two elephant robots, one could walk very slowly (and we had to watch it do so for a whole 5-10 minutes with nothing else happening), and one needed to be tipped over so that it could “die”. All in all, most of this had little to no magic about it and felt exceptionally disappointing.

That’s not to say that there weren’t some utterly lovely moments: the turtle puppet, which is basically a remote control car with a retractable head, managed to have a huge amount of personality, and the idea of the glow-in-the-dark snails was a lovely one, even if they didn’t work in practice (kept running into walls and not being able to right themselves). The gazelle robot was very pretty, but poorly articulated legs and the fact that its head got stuck linger in my mind more than the robot itself. There was also a beautifully puppeteered moment with small birds on the end of long sticks, which were balanced and interwoven with consummate skill, but there was nothing robotic about it – just solid puppeteering work.

While I’m absolutely in favour of the concept of the show (including the principle that live puppeteers build the set and operate the puppets without trying to hide), Savanna was a terrible reflection of how good this could have been. A real shame – this had plenty of potential, but it ended up feeling underwhelming.


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