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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times