Agnès Limbos and the Power of Objects

The Belgian performance artist, Agnès Limbos, is the doyenne of object theatre. I first saw her performing with Thierry Hellin in Axe, a one-hour play with the interesting subtitle, “The Importance of Human Sacrifice in the 21st Century.”

This was at the Charleville festival two years ago, and I knew nothing about object theatre back then. I was mesmerized by that show. It had no logic; you couldn’t emerge with a coherent story, any more than you could recount a jumbled, high-color dream. When we filed into the theatre, Limbos and Hellin were sitting at either side of a table with flowers and a tea set, beneath a chandelier, facing the audience. She was embroidering and he was reading book; both were in dressing gowns. Silence for ten minutes, as we took our seats: a strong message about their relationship.

When the lights went down she turned to him and said, “Darling, I’m so sorry; we have no tea”—the beginning of a monologue in which she began running around in increasing desperation as she described how she went to all the shops but no one had any, so she kept running until she ended up by the sea, crying out that they had no tea. During this monologue, Hellin put his book aside, rose, entered an empty refrigerator and shut the door. Later, he polished a pair of high boots; there was a marching sequence as he, in his turn, monologued. There was no causation, and sequence was wholly irrational. Twice during the action a mechanical spider-scorpion entered and buzzed around; at one point someone banged on the door; they heard the cry of a woman in the street outside; they froze in terror, holding chairs as shields but did nothing and her voice died away. Then they began lobbing imaginary bombs at unseen targets.

What is this? I thought. It’s like Ionesco, but it’s not Ionesco, whose work is all about the impossibility of language. It’s like—what? Nothing that I’d ever seen, despite the familiarity of the set, and the various props, and the overall situation of a couple in a domestic environment with nothing to say to each other.

So that was my first introduction to both Limbos and object theatre. I’ve seen a lot of it since, and I’m fascinated when it’s good, and impatient when it’s bad (it’s often bad).

The more I see of her work, the more I admire her. I’ll give you a selection of three pieces of different lengths that show the range and weird pathos of her comedy. The first is a teaser with highlights from Axe.

The second is a eight minute sketch that is complete in itself. At opening, Agnes and Gregory Houben are seated at a table, facing the camera; they are wearing blazers and white shirts. She plunks down a plastic representation of a couple, and announces, “Once upon a time, a couple.” There is a toy house; a red toy car. But the couple loses everything—“everything!” they proclaim, blank-faced: Perdu! Tout perdu! (the show is in English, with occasional bursts of French). Houben takes off his blazer, throws it away: perdu. She follows suit. He takes off his shirt, throws it away; she removes her own shirt, facing us with only a black undergarment. Even the carpet— American Style, Houben tells us—is lost. He rolls it up, throws it away. Lights dim. Agnes produces a sailboat; we hear the sound of the sea; Houben plays the trumpet. They are shipwrecked; a palm tree appears.

“Hello? Hello?” Houben calls, in a plaintive voice. “Is anyone there?”

He applies an old-fashioned telescope to one eye, as Limbos puts on a wig. He sees her and recoils. “You’ve changed. You look like a—queen.”

He puts on a beard and wig; she in her turn sees him through the telescope and is startled. “You’ve changed. You look like—like—like—an emperor.”

Then hurdy-gurdy music celebrating cocoa nuts begins, as she puts out a series of fresh trees, along with a house, and the two of them sing: “It’s easy, just to plant a tree. It’s easy, and it makes you—happy!”

Brilliant, very funny and always unexpected, this is an art of elusive ironies, where nothing works, and nothing is certain. Objects come and go in a completely arbitrary fashion, and the objects, which in “real” life appear to offer security, provide none.

These brief narratives of human helplessness are like poems, in which meaning is reduced to objects—plastic, mass-produced, trivial. Like the objects, the language is clichéd, and that’s what gives the piece such vulnerability: the clichés highlight the poverty of the two performers, who try to connect, but never do: like us. Here it is:

Finally, here’s another complete piece, 22 minutes this time, in which she and Houben explore the fantasy of marriage and the illusions of romantic love. Apart from the endearments of the end—each delivered through a toy trumpet—it’s in English.