Mime machine

Aurélien Bory's robot takes to the stage.

In Japan, an android recently made its stage debut, alongside a human actor; some might think Geminoid F's nuanced performance compared quite favourably with the average human luvvie. In London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, a robot from the 1970s stars with its two human sidekicks in the show Sans Objet. This is the brilliant brainchild of the French director Aurélien Bory, and so titled because the bot has been transposed from industrial utility -- car manufacturing -- to stage, rendering it ostensibly without purpose.

From Mary Shelley to Isaac Asimov, we have had a long fascination with the power and reach of our technological creations; inspired by Chaplin's Modern Times, Bory playfully skims a stack of questions about our interactions with gadgets and golems. The performance begins with a dimly lit, hunched and heaving shape underneath miles of plastic sheeting. It might be a giant insect hatching from a pupa, a pod about to pop, but it's oddly human as well in its recumbent stretchings. It was tempting, also, to think of the winding wrapping as shroud-like, considering the fate of Longbridge et al.

From the get-go, Bory doodles with the line between biological and mechanical, and also invites us to freely associate and project our own imaginings. And boy do we anthropomorphise! We confuse coded machine precision with care, even tenderness, as the revealed robotic arm appears to play with and cradle the two acrobats (Oliver Alenda and Olivier Boyer), who slither and dangle over its surfaces like children on a climbing frame. Its structure looks humanoid -- an upscale Wall-E -- as it cocks its head and stares at us, and its hydraulic whooshes sound like puffs of effort.

The relationship between automaton and actors is a delicate and shifting one: sometimes they appear to fuse with the machine, creating weirdly disturbing cyborg visions. At one point their heads appear clamped into a big transverse section of the contraption, seeming to be able only to slide left and right, while their bodies writhe to escape. As the machine slowly rotates, we see that this is an entirely voluntary groove: nothing is locking them in at all.

Often the performers have to cope with the appliance's disruptions: it doesn't so much tread the boards, as shred them. It shunts the ground beneath their feet, or continually shifts their planes, flipping them around on big sections of flooring, or putting the box that they're in on cybernetic spin-cycle. But the upended bits of floor, once they are standing vertically, look like so many sculptures - the naughty bot has made art.

Sometimes Bory uses the strength and scale of the robotics to create riotous illusions of bodies appearing to be split in two: disturbing dislocation, sure, but also gleeful and exquisite hall-of-mirrors tricks. Among many images of startling beauty is a gauzy shadow-play in which the performer appears to be floating around in amniotic fluid (shades of 2001). Alenda and Boyer have a particular genius for appearing to fragment and multiply body parts and at one point the floating human seems to develop a second pair of hands, which stroke the air like delicate cilia.

The final sequence of the show was simply astounding. The vast black plastic gets hoisted up as a massive curtain across the front of the stage. Rippling in the light it's like an aerial view of the sea. Suddenly explosions rip through the auditorium, as tiny holes are violently punched through the fabric from behind, which now turns metallic before our eyes (like a vast cheese grater). Once this terrifying convulsion stops, our robot switches its beams on and the scene changes to one of breathtaking celestial wonder: it's a panoply of stars, and such is the machine's range of movement that the prongs of light appear to seek out everyone in every part of the auditorium.

But the men that finally emerge from these Big Bangs are by this stage looking less-than-human, Untermenschen, their heads encased in black casts. Despite its distinctly retro look, the robot seems to evoke the whole seductive modern matrix of Pads, Pods and PCs to which we willingly submit -- Bory suggests, at our peril.

And maybe one of the more cheeky inquiries Bory makes is about the very business of acting, given that a collection of codes and hydraulics can make us laugh and cry. After all, it was not the Wizard of Oz techie we clamoured for at the end of the show, but the fetishised, super-sized widget.

This performance was part of the London International Mime Festival (LIMF) Gina Allum will file another report from LIMF next week.

 

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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred