I don’t notice the two performers when I enter New Diorama Theatre. They are dressed all in black, including stockings over their faces, except for grey wigs perched jauntily on their heads. They sit across from each other like human shadow puppets. In stilted dialogue, the man tells the woman that he’s thinking of renting a storage unit. Why, she asks. He’s met a woman training to be a personal coach. Like a counsellor? Not exactly like a counsellor. The personal coach visited his house and told him – with no offence intended – that he should declutter his life. Hence, he wants to rent a storage unit. His interlocutor has seen adverts for storage units on the tube but has never seen the point. Ah, he says, you wouldn’t see the point because they are aimed at the working classes. They sell the dream of being your own boss, of having your own space.
Why are they talking about storage units? Is it a conversation class, a meeting in code between two secret agents, a clandestine meeting between lovers? When they say storage unit do they mean storage unit? Surely there must be a metaphor in there.
From the first scene, I’m not sure what to make of All In, by Barcelona-based company ATRESBANDES. Yet over the course of the hour I become increasingly comfortable with this, charmed by the company’s wit and keen sense of the absurd. They are playing a game with the audience; as soon as the show seems to be rippling into meaning it cheekily turns away. Instead, All In is a mosaic of big ideas and styles. It made me aware of my own instinct to impose coherence and unitary meaning on performance, and how that might be a form of tyranny.
The individual and the group
The funniest scene of All In, almost a sketch, depicts a group of friends making lunch. Miquel exhaustively describes the layout of his kitchen and then the contents of his fridge-freezer. The company mime chopping vegetables, including a hysterics-inducing onion. Throughout, Melchior is hovering on the fringes of the group. He’s a vegetarian, he doesn’t drink, he vomits on the chicken. After the hilarity of this scene, it is shocking to watch the group turn on him. “I hate you. You are the most depressing person I know”, Miquel tells Melchior; Albert and Monica follow suit in denouncing him in chilling groupthink. The scene seems to express the vulnerability of the individual in a group (social, political, artistic), always at risk of ostracism, never fully belonging.
Art and politics
All In is a political show, although the specifics of its political engagement are a little hazy. At the show’s visual centre is footage of the Arirang Festival, a mass gymnastic and dance display held in North Korea to celebrate the state. Against the episodic nature and organised chaos of the rest of the show, there is something hypnotic in watching thousands of women moving in time, against technicolour backdrops. A voiceover recalling a conversation with the speaker’s boyfriend suggests that life in the capitalist West might be as constricted as under a dictatorship because it seems to offer the promise of freedom but is not true choice. Earlier in the show, Beethoven’s 9th symphony (Ode to Joy) plays to a magnificent light show (incidentally, the lighting and visual design by Cube.bz is spectacular), along with a voiceover that informed us that, as well as being played at Nazi rallies, it was one of very few Western pieces of music allowed in Communist China because of its power to bind groups together. ATRESBANDES is thus hyper-aware of All In’s own political positioning as a piece of art and art’s responsibility towards society; on press night, Miquel read out the company’s powerful manifesto denouncing the Spanish government’s treatment of Catalonia.
Back to storage units, which are, apparently, the perfect business for our age, as they provide for the three ‘ds’: death, divorce and dislocation. It seems fitting that a show professedly about “the millennial condition” should disorientate, dislocate and beguile its audience, through humour and through politics.
All In is on at New Diorama Theatre until Saturday 11th November, 2017. Book tickets here.