Nov 13, 2007

Small Metal Objects at Stratford East Station

It's been a little while since there's been anything approaching a review around here.

Maybe its a consequence of the 'near civil war' footing that I've been on for the last while, rattling around in the basement in a confederate bandanna, naming rifles after old girlfriends and whistling The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Happy Times.

I did, however, find the time to bustle my way across East London to Stratford station for Australian company Back to Back's Small Metal Objects, part of the fascinating Ozmosis season at the Barbican celebrating some of the exciting work from our antipodean friends that Alison waxes so magnificently lyrically about at Theatrenotes.

First thing to state is that this show is almost as fascinating before anyone has arrived as it is once the theatre nominally begins. Quick stepping into the grand airport-like terminal of Stratford station with my standard flustered overpunctuality, I gazed around confusedly at the sheer wall of windows, the commuters spilling through each other across the off-white floors, the un-moving silverlink trains jutting out into the centre of this showy modern edifice. I searched in vain for some sign of theatre - there must be a show round here somewhere... and then I saw it. Up on the balcony, a perfectly ridiculous, utterly conspicuous bank of bright red plastic seats, gazing down on nothing in particular.

It's a gloriously absurd piece of installation art in its own right, that I could quite happily imagine touring to various unexpected places. A frame around reality, a command to look, either at the magnificence of the world we daily overlook or the absurdity of the rituals and routines that make up our every day lives. It's fair to say traditionally I'm not a big fan of auditoriums, but this one I absolutely loved.

And then of course, the show begins. And it begins awfully well. The audience each puts on a set of headphones through which to hear the show, there are a few preliminary checks and then suddenly a shimmering few bars of echoing piano play, scoring beautifully the ebbs and flows of the people flocking through the station turnstiles beneath you. It's a wonderful moment - with a genuine, grand yet fragile magnificence to it that truly transcends theatre. Suddenly two Australian voices begin to interrupt this reverie, a plodding, naively profound conversation between a wise squeaky voice and a deeper, slower more ponderous one.

Where were these disembodied figures? The audience scanned the busy station, noting huddled figures in various corners, suddenly imbued with a sense of mystery and fascination - a life-size, living, breathing Where's Wally book. And then, amidst the confusion and the mess and the commuters flowing ceaslessly through it all, I picked out at the back of the station two stationary figures, no more than colourful, delicate smudges, taking in the whole view. It was the third startling moment in this show already, as the intimacy of the conversation suddenly slotted into the context of this overbearingly grand and busy station. There was something incredibly powerful in the image of these tiny figures, so distant and yet so close; so alien and unknown and yet so intimate and familiar - forcing us to hold in our heads at once our own local, personal world and the impossibly vast, overpopulated, bustling world that surrounds it.

Understandably after beginning with such force, the gentle, brittle story (if story is really the right word) that unfolds, while touching in a slight way, never regains these heights.

Having constructed such a fascinating form, I wanted them to explore it just a little more. There was one delightful moment as the characters moved closer and I suddenly realised that the voices that I had instinctively put to the actors' physiques were in fact reversed, but beyond that there was little surprise. And indeed, some of the ambiguity of the event was removed (as it was at GridIron's Roam) by the necessity for the actors to have their radio mics prominently taped to the side of their faces - leaving you in no doubt who was acting and, more frustratingly, who wasn't.

GridIron's Roam, performed around Edinburgh airport in 2006 (imagine the government allowing that to happen any more...) is indeed, an interesting show to bring up at this point. The company's director Ben Harrison recently left a comment on my article at the Guardian where he described the show as attempting to
interact with the world and connect intimately with the its theme, the emotions and politics of air travel. The two audiences, our paying audience which encircled the performers like a bubble, and the 'accidental' but omnipresent audience of air travellers using the airport, added to the layering of the piece and its social and political relevance.
And with Roam this was undoubtedly the case. Groups of travellers joined the formal audience, watching along with them, occasionally walking through the action, becoming (to a degree) performers in the show. The event felt fluid and open, generously inviting passers-by to engage with it, to follow the show and become a part of it.

The same could not be said about Small Metal Objects, although the headphones gave the show a powerful intimacy, they certainly excluded passers-by from anything other than a passive, unknowing involvement in the event. At one point one character asks commuters if their name is Gary, to the delighted snorts of the audience, while at the end as the actors clapped the commuters moving around them, with the same reaction. Both moments seemed to move alarmingly close to a smug elitism - a joke at the expense of the passers-by - like a candid camera show. Such a feeling was only compounded by the make-up of the audience and the cast (almost exclusively white) when compared to the rest of the station; like a little corner of the Barbican had been transported to the East End, to use it's station and its people like a dynamic, living cinematic Green Screen, without any attempt to include them in our spectacle.

And yet without this exclusivity there wouldn't be the anonymity for the actors that allows the show to reach moments of positively magical beauty; particularly the very last image - of two figures, lost in the crowds, standing on the balcony staring silently out across the station. It's an interesting conundrum raised by a fascinating show - I just would have liked to have seen them attempting to resolve it.


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Andy - the world seems a little smaller this morning. It's nice to be talking about the same show, if not the same event! And it's a lovely response. Re the perilous sense of smug elitism - I can quite see what you mean - I often have a similar shock just walking out of a theatre into the street - but for me it's a bit of a stretch to call the disabled actors in Back to Back members of a white elite, white though they may be (and actors though they may be) - surely they are as marginalised as anyone?

Andrew Field said...

True, and its a testament to their ability that I didn't realise this was a company of disabled actors until I read a couple of features after writing the review!

My discomfort was definitely more of a response to the audience than the actors, and I suppose that I might have missed an extra layer in terms of (as you said) the general public's response to the performer's (again, I yearn for the day when we have more discreet radio mics!).