In Praise of Hairiness

Jeanne Mordoj's one woman show, 'Eloge du Poil' (In Praise of Hairiness).
Jeanne Mordoj is one of those performers with striking stage presence. Perhaps her backgroun

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By James Hadley in London

Jeanne Mordoj is one of those performers with striking stage presence. Perhaps her background as a circus performer helped her to command our attention so. Perhaps the way she makes a self-conscious spectacle of herself as a bearded lady leads to an ambition to keep every eye in the room focussed on her.

I was going to write about the production of Chekhov's 'Three Sisters' that I recently saw at the Lyric Hammersmith. Directed by Sean Holmes for his company Filter, there were high expectations that this would be as innovative as the company's past reinterpretations of classic texts. But, while there are some strong performances and ideas, ultimately the production left me dissatisfied.

One of the easiest flaws to a production of a Chekhov play is to leave us emotionally distanced from the self-involved characters whingeing about not getting back to Moscow for three hours. I think Chekhov is one of the great dramatists in part due to his compassion - and if the audience doesn't feel the same care for all the characters that they are written with, then the production's doing us a disservice. 

The only characters I cared about in Filter's 'Three Sisters' were the ones played by actors with particularly strong stage presence. That's not to say they did anything particularly flashy - one was the maidservant who mostly lingered in the background. But the performances that were both truthful and emanated enough energy to connect with everyone watching in the auditorium were the ones that generated a sense of caring towards the fate of the character. 
Not to say that a lack of stage presence was what was at fault with the production, but experiencing Jeanne Mordoj's one woman show, 'Eloge du Poil' (In Praise of Hairiness) a week later within the London International Mime Festival, was the complete antidote to the lack of connection in the Filter production.

From the moment Mordoj began the performance, she exuded presence. So even when she was doing something that would be mildly tiresome from a lesser performer - throwing hairpins at a target for instance - you smile at her, lapping up the performance eagerly. Why? Because she's won us over - we want to spend time with her, we want to know her, we want to know what she will do next, perhaps we want to be like her.

Who is she? She presents herself as a bearded lady, which immediately gives her a politically incorrect aura of the sideshow freak. But she has all the power in this performance - she knows that her beard serves only to emphasise her distinctly French femininity. As she unfurls her auburn hair from a chignon and shakes it out into a flaming halo, stylishly nonchalant and in time to a quirky 'seventies soundtrack, we may not realise we are being seduced, but she knows it.

She's so confident in the way she carries out a series of unremarkable circus tricks, that we decide to be impressed anyway. If I were to swing a truck tyre around, you'd probably turn the other way. This woman swings a tyre with the poise of a figure skater.

She questions why the women in the audience do not have beards? And there's no doubt that the exoticism of her point of difference is a factor in how compelling her presence is. She picks up snail shells between her toes and acrobatically tosses them onto a glockenspiel in a bowl she's balancing on her head. There's no great purpose or context to this, like much circus arts performance; it's all about the way it's done - her focus is mesmerising. Nowhere more so than when she cracks an egg with her mouth and balances the yolk through a snail-like trail across her body - from hand down arm across chest down other arm and back, then down her cleavage to emerge down her thigh. It might have been erotic were it not presented as a tribute to a life that was never lived.
For underneath the quirky images of the piece, her short poetic musings in French (translated in surtitles) meditated upon the transience of life with a gothic sensibility. At one point, she extolled self-burial as the ultimate sensual release, and pulled up the floorboards in order to do so. An extended sequence, showcasing her talents as a ventriloquist, saw the skull of a ram in dialogue with the skull of a badger. The ram's skull lipsynched (without lips) to an operatic dirge, while the badger skull mocked it with nasal mimicry. Later the badger skull was punished for its impudence with near drowning in a submerged wooden box.

The solemnity of this act was carried out like an execution ritual, and it was again the focus and presence of the act that made us care. Why should we care whether a badger's skull survives being trapped underwater or not? Isn't it already dead? I guess that was the point - we had been seduced into the magical belief of this skull having been re-animated into life, purely by the performer's ventriloquism and will that we should do so.

As Jeanne Mordoj moved away from the badger skull still vocalising in the badger's nasal tones, there was something spooky about this sort of channelling of some other spirit. Again - at risk of harping on about it - her presence while vocalising in the abstract was such that you felt something akin to the magic of pagan ritual, something innate to the spell that good theatre casts over the audience.
Yet how infrequently I feel this sort of magic emanating from a performer, I thought to myself. It's so satisfying when you're in thrall to a performer who exhudes this sort of superhuman confidence onstage. The audience wants to project admiration and adulation onto the performers - we love to have total confidence in their abilities - but all too rarely are we put in a position where we can sit back spellbound. It's a dynamic you can feel an audience palpably appreciating when it does happen.

Written by

James Hadley

8 Feb 2010

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