The imaginary line running straight down the middle of the screen is a sliding scale.
Up the top here is how much I loved Sleepwalk Collective’s Karaoke.
The first time I saw it, as a work-in-progress, when already it seemed perfect: lysergic, eerie, naughty, penetrating, witty, transporting, sexy, devastating. The second time I saw it, when I realised part of me was waiting, longing, impatient for Iara and Sammy to kiss, because in that kiss was all the defiance and fury and desire that could save us from the apocalypse of late-capitalism. The third time I saw it, at Forest Fringe, when a bunch of people griped that the show was a poor imitation of Forced Entertainment and for once it didn’t worry me that I’ve seen so little work by Forced Entertainment.
On the face of it Karaoke was a show about the performance of theatre and its mirror, the performance of audience, but none of that dry/meta/intellectual stuff had me digging fingers between ribs to hold in my racing heart. That was more to do with what it insinuated about the performance of life: how trapped we can feel by the roles we choose, how miserably cliched the scripts that are handed to us, how impossible deviation can seem. The words I say to my children echoed from the mouths of other parents at the school gates/in the supermarket/at the playground. Echoed across geography, across time. There is no getting away. There is only a pervasive sense of impending doom. There is only the knowledge that eventually we all will die. The hope is in that kiss. The hope is in the small acts of resistance, the tiny refusals and reinterpretations.
I’m not sure I knew that then. There is distance between feeling and knowing.
In the middle here are my inconclusive feelings about Actress, the new show Sleepwalk Collective are working on. I saw it on the first of five nights at the Yard (Numbered Limited Edition 001 beams on to the back wall, like the tag to a still-life exhibit), so these words are provisional: first scratched thoughts awaiting revision. This one is performed just by Iara, unless you count Sammy’s restless jittering at the tech desk. And the fluffy duck. It too begins with thinking about theatre, who the person on stage is/pretending to be, and how the audience play: like children, like voyeurs at an execution, like surgeons. Very soon, though, it too shifts, to think less about what it is to be a body in a room called a theatre, and contemplate instead the metaphysics of existence.
What it is to be floating in space.
What it is to speak.
What it is to feel.
What it is to hear words coming out of your mouth and feel that you want to strangle yourself.
There is the beginning of something beautiful in Actress, something acute enough to be painful. Iara incanting into a microphone as a choir sings a mass, Iara murmuring of the “secret language of shape and touch”, Iara falling from her tiny wedding-cake stage, leaving behind the splattered remains of her sticky-sweet heart. The more the show wears its soul on its sleeve – in lines like: “Sometimes there’s so much happening inside of me I can’t think” or, “Sometimes my head feels like a graveyard” – the more I adore it, am absorbed by it.
What pushes Actress down the scale is my inability to figure out how I feel about the fetishisation of Iara as performer. She plays with it, sure: she’s deliberately, grotesquely coquettish at first, voice a mechanised Barbie whisper; later she sweet-nonsenses the fluffy duck as it nestles in the crook of her arm, against her breast. But mostly I want to resist the exalting of Iara as object of desire. I want something fiercer, something that pushes hard at questions to do with the representation of women and the erotics of theatre. Something that, in the midst of beauty, risks shards of ugliness.
Down here, at the bottom of the imaginary line, at the end of the sliding scale, is Amusements, the one other Sleepwalk Collective show I’ve seen. This was the one in which Iara stood on stage in a red dress, legs parted, knickers stretched between her ankles, and spoke in an oh-so-alluring whisper of the representation of women and the erotics of theatre. I walked out furious: that the company hadn’t made better use of their headphone technology, that the performer had spent so much time telling me what I was thinking and getting it spectacularly wrong, that the performer’s knickers were round her ankles. I thought about writing off Sleepwalk Collective as a company whose work I never needed to see again. I’m really glad I didn’t.