Friday 14 March 2014

Dissolved: The Uncanny Valley – Sophiensæle

[seen 20.30, Sat, 8th March, Berlin]

Pre-show, Berlin. Taken by me, obviously.

The premise of Dissolved: The Uncanny Valley is a fascinating one. The piece is performed simultaneously in London and Berlin with a live video link up. The set incorporates a large projection screen on which we can see both the London and Berlin sets. The two stages are overlaid, but have been made so precisely that in most places they just seem to blend into one another. At the start a couple of chairs tucked under the two identical tables (or rather one table per set) are slightly out of sync. So one of the performers – Julian Maynard Smith, I think – goes and adjusts the London ones, so that they’re completely matched to the position of the Berlin ones.

There are three performers in each city. At the start we see the concept of whether they can see or are meant to be aware of each other being played with. We can obviously see only our actors on the stage, but at the same time we can see what the London actors are up to on their set, overlaid with the video version of the stage we’re also looking at for real. As such, we can appreciate the disconnect between the reality and the technological fantasy which has been created. The performers variously pretend to react to a London-performer – knowing the place they’ll be standing and basically doing blue-screen acting at it. Or else they equally “pretend” to ignore them.

Then there is the playing with the ability for two performers to occupy the “same” space. This constitutes quite a lot of the rest of the stage time. Different performers stand in as the “other halves” of each other – although there seem to be quite a fixed set of correspondences that occur most often, between the two white, older men, the two younger women (black and south Asian respectively), and the older woman and younger, possibly more flamboyant, youngish man. I did wonder briefly whether these grouping were worth worrying about, but it didn’t seem so.

The pairs do all sorts of things together. One pours wine and drinks. His opposite number accuses him of serious alcoholism. He responds that his opposite number in London is a pathological liar. Already we don’t know the truth even of these characters, accepting quickly that we also have no idea where they are, who they are, or what even the situation is. There is a delay of a couple of second on the link between the video screen, the sound, and London, so we can hear our performers speaking again, amplified in what sounds like a much more echoey room in London.

The walls are also half fake, it turns out – giant pieces of polystyrene which can be re-placed, re-erected at a moment’s notice. The most interesting ting about this is the way that they can then be used to create “blank” spaces in the scene, in the room, effectively hiding parts of the London or Berlin stage so that when the walls of the room don’t correspond performers can simply “disappear” from the camera’s view and therefore from the view of half the audience (or rather, all the audience in one of the places).

In common with the only other piece of Station House Opera’s work I’ve seen, Mind Out, it did feel like some of the material was largely demonstrative, and beyond that, almost random. No. Random is unfair. It’s clearly serving purposes and dramaturgically exciting and astute enough to take you on a mental journey through the hour-and-a-half duration. You end up thinking about a load of stuff. I thought about London, of course, and our comparative arts venues. I thought about gender and race and sexuality and representation. And about what it meant when performers’ faces were “mixed” like this. And what the mirroring meant. Actually, I ended up going off into several I think pretty profitable streams of consciousness while watching, but these seem to have proved to have been rather ephemeral. I wish I’d taken notes. Although I wonder if they’d have made any more sense outside the room than the hastily scribbled note on waking from a particularly provocative dream does in the morning.

There were also a few technical hitches. I like technical hitches, because they make you realise just how technical a thing is. If you see the seamless show, then you appreciate that it’s happening, but it’s not until it stops happening, it goes away, you lose it briefly, that you get to see just how impressive a feat it really is. The technician standing in Berlin, listening on his headset, presumably to the technician in London – it’s not clear where the error is, but the screens have frozen (there are two cameras and the screens don’t seem to like switching back and forth between them).

What’s interesting about the whole, which goes back to what felt like an interesting or “important” argument which was going on in March – May 2011 about narrative – when, coincidentally, I was spending a lot more time at Sophiensæle – is the way that it really does feel entirely postdramatic. Completely without “a narrative”. Of course the “events” unfold in real time, and you could try to make a story out of them, but it strikes me now, as it struck me then, that there’s more to “a story” than simply one thing happening after another. If the events appear to have no logical continuity from one moment to the next, why is it a story? We don’t watch sketch shows as a continuous narrative, so why should we claim that theatre always creates narrative. Perhaps little fractured narrative*s*, but here even that possibility is problematised by the presence of “invisible” or phantomic figures, who have to possibility of sharing the “same” space as another performer. And all the multiple meanings that this possibility could intend or evoke.

Ultimately, I suppose what I’m saying is: this is a great experiment. I would really love to see it developed a lot further. And it does make you think about a bunch of stuff, from stuff-about-performance to stuff-about-the-world-and-how-we-understand-it. At the same time, I think in terms of content that it could easily be stronger and could work with the meanings and ideas it evokes a lot more closely. But at the same time, perhaps doing so would cheapen it.

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