There are moments of magic in Lift Off, where the machines Magali Rousseau has built and introduces you to one by one seem to take on a life of their own, like the steel menagerie of her imagination, a steampunk fantasy spilling out into the darkness of the Barbican’s Pit.
Some of her creations are on sale on the way in, as you enter the space from the foyer, and they look a little sorry, dusty, like technological taxidermy. It’s in the dreamlike, crepuscular space of the Pit that they really come to life, that they seem to feel at home.
Parts of the menagerie are mammalian, canine-like, lumbering around the space, eager to please. Others are more abstractions of real world creatures. Several are air-bound and it is these that become the focus of the narrative, of sorts, that Rousseau wraps around the experience of watching her creations. The refrain that punctuates her direct audience address is “My mother never learnt how to swim. Maybe that’s why she taught me how to fly…”
She conjures up her own rural childhood in chalk on the floor: the old stone house she grew up in with her mother and her grandparents. She explains her early ambitions to fly and this text takes on a cyclical nature in the style of books for young children: each day the child Rousseau determines that the next day will be the day she will finally manage to lift off.
The text and its performance style both seem geared towards very young children and this is probably accentuated by Rousseau speaking much of it in her second language, taking her time to enunciate each word. As a result, it felt like something to be tolerated by the rest of the audience (the majority: there were maybe a handful of children in the audience on press night). I would be interested to see what the experience would have been like with an audience comprised of under-tens.
As we were unceremoniously and clumsily guided through the space to our next encounter with one of the machines, I started to feel that the connection between what we were seeing and what we were hearing was tangential at best. Were these machines built for this show, or did they already exist and Rousseau decided to make a show around them? Whichever way round it was, they felt unruly, like they couldn’t be contained by the narrative Rousseau was attempting to encase them in.
Never work with animals, they say, even mechanical ones. They’re bound to upstage you.
L’Insolite Mécanique: Lift Off was at the Barbican until January 27th. For more details, click here.