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30 June 2010

Digital theatre

The LIFT festival puts new technology to unsettling use.

By Gina Allum

LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre) regrouped across the capital for the first time in nine years last week, with a determinedly edgy programme. The line-up combines a boyish enthusiasm for digital technology, all live feeds to this and video links to that (I note that soporific Teutons Rimini Protokoll are in town), with a perhaps equally boyish element of pure whimsy. You can hear “Music for Seven Ice Cream Vans” in Canning Town or enjoy “Haircuts by Children” in Newham.

But first, for something completely different. Back to Back are an Australian theatre company of performers with intellectual disabilities, and their show Food Court is devised by the actors, and inspired by an overheard conversation about diet. The performance depicts two women of Tellytubby proportions (Nicki Holland and Sonia Teuben) cruelly taunting an average-sized woman (Sarah Mainwaring) for being fat. The two bullies are decked out in bright yellow leotards, so there is no hiding the fleshly folds; like fat-fighters worldwide, however, they indulge themselves in the charade of never eating anything beyond crudités.

To an excruciating soundtrack of improvised “late night” jazz from The Necks, the scene shifts to a forest, where behind a diaphanous screen the bullying is turned up several notches. The victim is told to strip, and then to dance. She is then beaten to near-death, and after a tender moment between the two heavyweights, another actor fantasizes about using her prone body to fill in the blanks of his sexual experience.

This extraordinary role-play makes for very uncomfortable viewing. Usually we sign up to the fallacy that an actor’s body is somehow neutral and can be plied, at will, to produce various impressions. Back to Back remind us this is far from the case. Here, the actors’ bodies are clearly already marked for us, shot through with signifiers about disability, and the actors themselves can no more control these impressions than Mainwaring can control the motor functions of her right arm.

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The notion of control is a moot one, and I found myself wondering as much about the rehearsal process and direction as about the piece itself. Mainwaring quotes from Caliban at the show’s end, which necessarily invokes an unseen Prospero — in this case, director Bruce Gladwin — who has expertly shaped the cast’s work and layered on the technology. Are the actors more acted upon than acting? His decision to veil the second part of the show, for example, reduces their bodies to little more than smudges on the screen: they were designed off their own stage. Perhaps this demonstrates that we only ever see the disabled through a glass, darkly.

A Prospero of a different kind was wielding his watery magic on the Southbank. Dutch artist Dries Verhoeven has set up a mobile internet café for his show Life Streaming, which explores the complexities of international aid, in this case to post-tsunami Sri Lanka.

On the approach to the pop-up café the marine mood was set as we walked barefoot across duck boarding. (There is a reason they ask you to take your shoes off, as the sock-clad woman next to me found out). Then we were each linked up to a performer in Sri Lanka via webcam. Not being an adept of the chatroom, for me this was a thrill in itself, but I’m guessing it wasn’t a whole lot different from the myriad forums available to the Twitterati. Except that at some points the script surfaced, both in terms of the way the conversation about love, loss and insurance was managed, and was interrupted with Rough Guide-type information about cultural difference.

Facing the grey soup of the Thames, it was difficult to imagine the treachery of a body of water 8,000km away that had led to the deaths of more than 33,000 people in Sri Lanka alone. Easy enough, however, to bond with a single “survivor”. There’s a pleasurable sting in unexpected connections with a stranger — what were the chances that Natalie and I would share an admiration for John Donne? “Busie olde foole,” she wrote. “Unruly Sunne”, we typed simultaneously.

But then she raised the possibility of an entirely different kind of sting — the collection of such personal data to facilitate fundraising. The relationship falters and cracks. At one point Natalie typed: “a new friend”, deleted it and replaced with “someone I’ve just met”, deleted that and replaced with: “you”.

I may have managed to escape having my hair shorn off by kids on a scissor high, but the two festival shows so far have felt like a chastening penance all the same. Time for an ice cream.