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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit