It all starts with a blindfold and a leaf

“We live in a time where stories surround us. Multiple stories. Constantly. Fragmented by television, radio, print, the internet, calling to us from every hoarding and passing by us by our every street corner. We no longer live in a world of the single tale. So the shards of stories we have put together, some longer some shorter, collide here in the theatre, reflecting, repeating, and evolving like the act of memory itself.”

Simon McBurney

Cast in Mnemonic. (Photo: Johan Persson)

It all starts with memory.  Khalid Abdalla takes to the stage as himself in the part occupied in 1999 by Simon McBurney to give us, a partly hesitant and unassuming, lecture on how memories are formed and recalled.  This is the memorable show from twenty five years ago which set up Complicité’s reputation for exciting and innovative theatre.  Their strength is that their theatre stays with you, hours, months, years after seeing it as you muse and churn on the memory of it. 

I was listening to a programme on Radio 4 about Simon Burney’s inspiration for his creative life.  He had been brought up in Cambridge and remembered Cyril Fletcher in pantomime taking out his teeth.  I, also brought up in Cambridge,  remember my mother taking me to the Arts Theatre and Cyril Fletcher asking me onstage, to pat my head and rub circles on my tummy at the same time because I couldn’t do it.  So we both start with a similar memory!

Khalid Abdalla (Photo: Johan Persson)

Khalid Abdalla explains about synapses and the hippocampus and directs us to open the hessian bag.  In darkness he will ask us to return in memory to our six year old self, look down at our shoes, Startright sandals, and with a raised right arm held by my mother and a raised left arm held by my father go back hundreds of years through the generations.  This is taking us back over 5000 years to a body found in the Italian Alps in 1991.  The inspiration for this is Simon McBurney’s archaeologist father and his being taken on digs as a child. 

So when the play starts for real, Khalid Abdalla is Omar and he is alone where he lives, his girlfriend Alice (Elaine Walsh) has moved out and left him a cryptic voice message.   Alice has gone to her mother’s funeral and commenced a search for her father whom she never knew but she doesn’t tell Omar this.  In parallel is the story of Ötzi the Iceman found frozen in a glacier from pre-history.  Both stories will use imaginative staging, lighting and movement to add to the air of mystery and befuddlement. 

Cast in Mnemonic. (Photo: Johan Persson)

There are obvious similarities intertwined in both Alice’s search for her father and the scientists investigating Ötzi’s life style.  Alice meets a cousin and finds her father’s shoes which tell us he was a pianist, a prayer shawl which indicates he was Jewish. An idiosyncratic Greek taxi driver (Kostas Philippoglou) gives information about the father’s watch. The scientists find 19 different types of 5000 year old wood, each with a distinct function as a quiver, as arrows, as a basket, as a staff and fur clothing and woven grasses. 

Eileen Walsh as Alice and Khalid Abdalla as Omar (Photo: Johan Persson)

There is an amusing conference on the Ice Man in Bolzano with different nationality academics taking part, each expert having their own agenda and amusing translation malfunctions. An academic dispute ensues.  Tim McMullan, one of the original cast, is an American archaeologist contributing to the Ice Man debate

There are visual contributions to a dream like state with an opaque plastic curtain suddenly covered in rain and a totally memorable procession of rolling figures taking turns to tumble across a table as in an elegiac, synchronised gym exercise.

I was disappointed by Omar’s suggestion once Alice makes contact again, to drop her search for her father and let her imagination take over. McBurney’s point is where memory fails, is to let imagination fill the void.

I think what makes this production exceptional and engrossing is the way in which it can touch each and every one of us.

Cast in Mnemonic. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Production Notes


Created and Directed by Simon McBurney



Eileen Walsh

Arthur Wilson

Khalid Abdalla

Kostas Philippoglou

Laurenz Laufenberg

Richard Katz

Sophie Steer

Thomas Arnold

Tim McMullan

Sarah Slimani

Hisham Abdel Razek


Director: Simon McBurney

Set Designer: Michael Levine

Costume Designer: Christina Cunningham

Lighting Designer:  Paul Anderson

Sound Designer:  Christopher Shutt

Video and Projection:  Ronald Horvath

Musical Director: Dan Glover

Puppet Designer: Simon Auton


Running Time: Two hours  without an interval

Booking until 10th August 2024



Olivier Theatre

National Theatre

South Bank

London SE1 9PX

Tube/Rail : Waterloo


Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Olivier Theatre

on 2nd July 2024

Cast in Mnemonic. (Photo: Johan Persson)