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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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood