It was a house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and the site of Operation Neptune Spear. It was grey-to-white and white-to-grey in colour, and sat at a height of three stories in a 38,000-square-foot compound ringed with an 18-foot concrete wall. The walls were topped with barbed wire, there were not many windows and the grounds contained a well-kept vegetable garden. It was a house in North Carolina, United States, used to rehearse Operation Neptune Spear. It was a house in Jordan, used to recreate Operation Neptune Spear before cameras for the film Zero Dark Thirty. It is a house on stage at the Traverse Theatre, used to recreate, rehearse and site Operation Neptune Spear; a mission that concluded after the target was assassinated a short time after 1:00am on May 2nd, 2011.
A House in Asia, presented by Agrupación Señor Serrano at Manipulate 2017, is a satirical pop-culture portrait of the largest man-hunt in history, the decade-long pursuit of Osama Bin Laden. Taking a refreshingly precise aim at American foreign policy, and referencing Moby Dick, Take That and Chris Pratt in the process, A House in Asia is a provocatively layered and yet incredibly satisfying piece of work. Beyond its reference to historical events, this is a work about making sense of the present moment, understanding how it feels to live in the age of terror.
I’m playing football on a brick-surface drive in Kelsall, practising kicking with my instep in a bid to curve the ball into the top right corner of the red garage door. Surrounding the spot that I’m aiming for are the dents of the year’s earlier efforts to be David Beckham. I am playing with an Adidas Terrestra Silverstream, an imitation of the ball used at Euro 2000. My mum sticks her head out of the back door and tells me to come inside. The image is at first confusing, with blurred graphics and a loud engine roar. There are fields below, but it is difficult to know what is going on, and why. The flight turns out over a body of water, and seems to circle past what might be the Statue of Liberty. There is a skyline in front of us, dominated by two towers side by side. This is Airline Flight 11’s path on the morning of September 11th 2001. The three performers of Agrupación Señor Serrano, Àlex Serrano, Pau Palacios and Alberto Barberá, crash us into northern face of the World Trade Centre’s Northern Tower.
A House in Asia is a very bold piece of work. One that through a combination of stage performance, film projections, live editing, scale models and soundscapes immerses its audience in a decade of terror. It’s exciting, terrifying, loud, brash and endlessly self-referential. Starting at the events of 9/11, the work moves both forwards towards the assassination of Bin Laden, backwards through the longer history of Pakistan and laterally through a barrage of pop-culture references. Describing the work is extremely difficult because it works through a theatrical language with an entirely different grammar to this written English.
In A House in Asia scenes bleed across reference points and time-periods, permeating together such that a scale-model filmed re-enactment of Operation Neptune Spear can actually be a scale-model filmed re-enactment of the filming of Zero Dark Thirty, and Pakistan is actually Jordan which is actually North Carolina which is actually the Traverse, and Matt Bissonnette, the Navy Seal who shot Bin Laden, is actually Mark Anthony Patrick Owen, member of Take That, and Bin Laden is actually Moby Dick and Bush, Obama and now Trump are all the same sailor, clinging to their nemesis, like Cowboys to their Indians, all the while wondering who will play them in the film adaptation. Layer upon layer, model upon model, reference on reference. After the applause the audience rush to the stage to take photographs, and another layer, another model, another reference is added.
The work is complicated, yet what makes it outstanding is the consideration with which this puzzle is assembled. The quality and method of the storytelling is inspiring. Information is dripped through, seeds are sown to grow later and the audience are allowed to enjoy being confused, having total confidence that Agrupación Señor Serrano are in control of the narrative.
The only comparison that comes to hand in thinking about this piece’s dramaturgy is that of an orgasm. A building, an overwhelming sensation and a clarity of presence, which arrives when the narrative strands finally coalesce. Rather than purpose, or necessarily knowledge, the work puts me in a moment of comprehension, a recognition of the feeling of being in a war on terror, an understanding of the qualitative experience of being terrorised on a daily basis. Working with a greater clarity that I can hope to offer, Peggy Phelan writes that ‘the making in making love marks an allegiance to nothing more and nothing less than the force of the desire to make something in the present tense’. Agrupación Señor Serrano’s A House in Asia makes love to its audience in this way, or at least I felt made love to by the end, brought into this brief making of something, a present tense of terror. A condition perhaps most fully embodied by a generation of children who witnessed 9//11 through TV screens.
A House In Asia was on as part of Manipulate 2017. Click here for more details.