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INK at Sadler's Wells review: splashy show explores the traumatic relationship between caress and carnage

Dimitris Papaioannou in Ink at Sadler's Wells (Julian Mommert)
Dimitris Papaioannou in Ink at Sadler's Wells (Julian Mommert)

The Greek choreographer Dimitris Papaioannou has a hazy childhood memory. It’s of a fisherman pounding an octopus on the rocks and recurs in his work like, he says, “a sexual act of death.” It returns in INK, his latest production, just one of the stage pictures that are at once arresting and queasy.

Papaioannou is an artist who works in surreal scenes touched by nightmare. The Olivier-nominated Transverse Orientation, his last show to visit London, was dominated by a life-size bull. In INK, he himself appears, alongside several octopi (fake, I fervently hope), a mostly naked younger man and gallons of water. Water sprays from a tap, sloshes from a perspex globe, mists the air and arcs across the stage.

Wearing head-to-toe black, soaked through, the salt-and-pepper Papaioannou prowls the charcoal-toned space as the floor fills with water. Light catches the bone-pale nude figure of Suka Horn, who seems washed up on stage under a membrane of plastic sheeting. Horn is slippy and squirmy; Papaioannou tries to contain, maybe smother him, and drops an octopus on the young man’s crotch.

Who are these people? Keeper and creature, daddy and twink? The kink coded power struggles also have shades of Frankenstein and his monster, a man haunted by his own creation. The man in black tries to control the uncontrollable, frustrated by the spuming elements.

Dimitris Papaioannou in Ink at Sadler's Wells (Stelios Theodorou Gklinavos)
Dimitris Papaioannou in Ink at Sadler's Wells (Stelios Theodorou Gklinavos)

Violence laps the action, the lighting turning a monstrous blood red. To a circus drumroll, Papaioannou dons a maroon ringmaster’s coat and makes Horn perform a freakshow jiggle, wrapped in coils of hosepipe.

Even the props have a grotesque tinge – I won’t forget the hybrid octobaby in a hurry, nor the way Papaioannou cradles it and assays a breast feed. Both performers rip into the sea creatures that flop into view, munching at starkly crimson innards. (My pal had planned fish fingers for her post-show snack, but said she’d lost her appetite.)

Papaioannou’s influences include Pina Bausch, and you can see traces in the traumatic relationship between caress and carnage, the periodic soundtrack of vintage waltzes. There’s also a glitterball, bouncing shards of light around the walls or advancing with shining menace through the water.

There isn’t much dance in INK – it’s described as “a play for two” – but it dunks your gaze in one unexpected vision after another. It doesn’t readily give up its meanings, but this sold-out show is surely the splashiest in London.

Sadler’s Wells Theatre, to March 2; sadlerswells.com