‘It’s as though the aesthetic has been created by Jean Paul Gaultier’: 6 DEGREES BELOW THE HORIZON – Imitating The Dog (Online review)

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‘It’s as though the aesthetic has been created by Jean Paul Gaultier’: Though the story of @ImitatingtheDog’s 6 Degrees Below The Horizon seems simple there’s a whole wealth of meaning bubbling away under the surface, writes @johnchapman398

I have seen several productions by Imitating The Dog over the last year, each of which sought to redraw the boundaries between film and theatre. Their productions are challenging but rewarding and, even at their most obscure are never less than fascinating to look at. I have now reached the end of their sequence of releases, a piece called 6 Degrees Below The Horizon. The title refers to the moment at which twilight (at both dawn and dusk) becomes official and is highly appropriate to the event that is about to unfold with its characters inhabiting a netherworld on the edges of society.

For the first few minutes you might think that you about to engage with a piece of cinema, for indeed that is what you are watching. A man lies dying but wants to make one last confession to his daughter – occasionally this element resurfaces to remind us that we are watching a story within a story. It acts (literally) as a framing device to the main narrative which plays out in an elongated box, sometimes series of boxes, which appear within the screen itself.

The tale is of a young man simply known as Sailor who starts an idyllic existence with a bar singer who becomes pregnant by him. Money runs short and the protagonist turns to prostitution involving increasing degrees (six of them?) of degradation. Ultimately, he encounters a figure in a bar whose face remains unseen; Sailor seems to sell the stranger his soul in a Faustian pact – but I can’t say anymore about that without giving the game away.

The piece is heavily invested with the tropes of melodrama and largely deals in stereotypes in lieu of character… and the whole thing is so, well, French! There’s a definite whiff of Gauloise in the air as striped jerseys and berets hove into view (no strings of onions or bicycles though). There is a high degree of homoeroticism which also pervades. It’s as though the aesthetic has been created by Jean Paul Gaultier and indeed it’s as knowingly done and subversive as the designer himself.

Sailor remains dressed in the uniform of his profession throughout, even when he jumps ship, although it is used to attract and seduce his clients. The painted and animated backgrounds by Simon Wainwright against which the actors work also add to the Gallic atmosphere. Most obviously of all, the majority of the dialogue is in French although this is mouthed by the performers lip synching to other voices – whether live or recorded I cannot say. To complete the illusion of a French film there are translated subtitles though this doesn’t apply to the framing film which is in English.

As ever with this company’s work the writing and direction of Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks is precise and meticulously calibrated with a fine eye for visual detail and, in this case, the aesthetic of cinema. The actors behave as if they are in a film rather than on the stage and are often understated in performance.

None more so than Adam Nash as the main character. Things seem to happen to him rather than him initiating events; either that or he more or less falls into situations by chance rather than design. His one positive choice is to form a liaison with the Singer (Laura Atherton), but this ultimately only brings him grief.

The rest of the seven strong cast take on all the other roles creating a whole range of sailors, prostitutes and bar flies which populate this particular world. Music is put to good use in a soundtrack by Hope and Social and Piotr Woycicki. Use is made of almost clichéd French songs which are then quickly subverted to create something “other” – was that, for instance, a slowed down Edith Piaf singing “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”? There’s even a sea shanty or two (though en francais) and you couldn’t get more 2021 than that.

All of this, of course, serves to  question any preconceptions the audience might have, a familiar modus operandi of this particular company. Though the story itself seems simple there’s a whole wealth of meaning bubbling away under the surface and it’s the sort of piece where different people will find varieties of meaning in what is being played out. It’s as much about what the audience brings to the piece as it is about what is being presented. Imitating The Dog is not a company I had encountered before lockdown, but they are now definitely on my ‘to see’ list once theatre returns to the stage….whenever and however that may be.

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John Chapman
John Chapman works as a freelance education consultant, writer and copy editor. Prior to this, he was an Assistant Headteacher specialising in English and Drama. John first took to the stage as a schoolboy pretending to be a Latin frog. Decades later, he has been involved with 150+ productions, usually as an actor or director. He is currently a member of Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington, London. In 2016, he was in their “mechanicals” team that worked as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play For The Nation, appearing both at the Barbican and in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2004, he served as a panellist on the Olivier Awards; he is currently an Offies assessor. He reviews for a variety of websites, writes his own independent blog 2ndFromBottom about his theatrical life.
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John Chapman on RssJohn Chapman on Twitter
John Chapman
John Chapman works as a freelance education consultant, writer and copy editor. Prior to this, he was an Assistant Headteacher specialising in English and Drama. John first took to the stage as a schoolboy pretending to be a Latin frog. Decades later, he has been involved with 150+ productions, usually as an actor or director. He is currently a member of Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington, London. In 2016, he was in their “mechanicals” team that worked as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play For The Nation, appearing both at the Barbican and in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2004, he served as a panellist on the Olivier Awards; he is currently an Offies assessor. He reviews for a variety of websites, writes his own independent blog 2ndFromBottom about his theatrical life.

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