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.