TSKC's Bethan Screen reviews The Outbound Project’s very visceral M.E.H (Mass Epidemic Hysteria)!
New Diorama Theatre, November 19th 2018
1518, France. A woman walks into the street and starts to dance. She is joined by over 200 people all unable to stop. Many of these people dance themselves to death. The exact cause is still unknown.
2018, England. A girl walks onto the beach and starts to dance.
Mass Epidemic Hysteria:
1. Spontaneous, en masse development of physical and/or emotional symptoms among a group of people;
2. A socially contagious frenzy of behaviour in a group as a reaction to an event.
Award winning physical and visual theatre company, The Outbound Project, explore the unexplained phenomenon of mass epidemic hysteria in this powerful, visceral, new piece of work.
You know the feeling, you could be in a meeting, a crowded cinema, a classroom and someone starts to yawn. Before you know it the same tickle rises in your throat, your mouth opens, you take in a big gulp of air, and your chest expands. “It’s contagious,” you think to yourself as you hear someone else with the same affliction at the end of the row. The same could be said when someone coughs or clears their throat, giving everyone else in the space permission to do the same. You hear about an epidemic of lice and your scalp begins to tingle . You don’t even have contact with any young children BUT perhaps you’ve caught it, you try to hide itching your head with smoothing your hair.
So begins M.E.H, the third show from The Outbound Project, an award winning physical theatre company based in England. The cast of six dressed in a mixture of modern and vaguely renaissance garb calmly gaze at the audience welcoming us in to their world. One performer begins to yawn which is soon passed on to them all. Yawning turns to a naughty smile then grows to all six belly laughing, falling off their chairs, then itching until all movements combine into a frantic mess and the audience can’t resist doing the same movements.
The company cleverly intertwines the true story of Strasbourg’s dancing ‘plague’ of 1518 and a ‘what if’ scenario of the same thing happening today in a seaside town in England. Fun fact: in 1518 the mayor’s solution was to create a stage area for the growing afflicted and hire musicians to keep them moving and strong men to lift up the collapsing dancers—look it up!
The company use atmospheric voice over to narrate the historical chaos and snappy dialogue to take us back to the present day. We meet a group of teenagers and a local lifeguard in stunned shock while they watch their friend Annabel dancing (or is it convulsing?) without stopping. They explain it away saying she’s doing it for attention. Using an effective see-through cage structure, the inexhaustible Phoebe Stapleton playing Annabel remains permanently trapped and impressively dances for the entire one hour duration of the show. All the while, she watches the plot unfold while watching the audience, too. To everyone on stage she is invisible and silenced, her breath misting on the plastic walls.
Zipping between 1518, 2018 and an additional thread to the story set a few years later where the lifeguard and Annabel’s sister reflect on how they could have handled the situation better, the time travelling structure, while necessary, can be a little disorientating for the first fifteen minutes of the show. The Outbound Project really shine when it comes to the breathtaking movement sequences and physical storytelling. The audience is left feeling almost as exhausted as the performers on stage, watching them throw each other around as part of their slick and tireless choreography. With such assured physical performance, at times, the dialogue feels as though it continues for too long. Being one of the first times they have performed this show, I have no doubt the text will be sharpened as the piece develops. However, there is welcomed comic relief from the interactions between the lifeguard and the group of teenagers that alleviates the anxiety of the progressing epidemic.
M.E.H is an exhilarating piece that reflects on the power of group mentality and dance. The Outbound Project uses the device of the cage and the real and imagined events of Mass Epidemic Hysteria to touch on themes such as medical ethics and the minimising of female pain in the healthcare system. Modern themes, treated intelligently and sensitively, but with enough magic and mystery to make this a compelling viewing. Make sure to get a ticket for when they will undoubtedly go on tour!