The exclamatory title of Room 2 Manoeuvre’s latest show is not so much a demand as a slogan, aping the advertising that regularly bursts from our screens. If it is a demand, then it seems somewhat redundant, as in today’s world – as this piece recognises – it’s virtually impossible to avoid watching. Whether it’s the box in the corner of the living room or the open YouTube tab showing cat videos and casual violence, moving images are now the constant backdrop to our lives.
Straddling dance, theatre and multimedia, Watch iT! is a surreal and occasionally unsettling take on these pervasive televisual images. As if to demonstrate the visual language that we are all so fluent in, Room 2 Manoeuvre’s exploration of television is largely wordless, relying instead on the body and the screen. Dancer Tony Mills begins in the familiar armchair slump, the glowing rays of the television casting a sickly light over his inert form, before a bizarre journey through the addiction that keeps us hooked to our screens. Throughout this series of inter-linked physical sequences, the television is both lover and antagonist; it talks back and it takes over.
The form that the piece takes is essentially a set of vignettes – sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing – rather than a fully cohesive whole. Each is linked by the ubiquitous presence of the television screen, but otherwise they can feel a little disparate. In one section, the exaggerated and stunningly precise routine of habitual, emptily reiterated movements in front of the television segues from the funny into the oppressive. In another, a strangely tender dance between man and television, reflecting the romance that might waltz across the screen, ends with the machine physically dominating its owner. Elsewhere, we witness the manipulative power of editing and the dilution of the real under the pressure of television’s indiscriminate flood of images. Always the progression is from the amusingly recognisable to the surreally sinister.
Too often, however, Watch iT! is intent on showing when it could leave more to our own mediatised ways of seeing. Our minds are already infected with the recognisable tropes that pop up again and again on Room 2 Manoeuvre’s screens and jolting us into an awareness of this might be more powerful than feasting our eyes with images that are all too familiar. The contemporary consciousness is stuffed to the brim with stunt car crashes and rom-com scenarios, botched home videos and visually explicit news coverage.
At its most successful, the piece exploits this image-bombarded modern wiring of our brains. One of the most memorable sequences, for instance, evolves from a joke that the protagonist can never go out with his television because she always hogs the attention. He then dances while snatches of video – ranging from the banal to the funny to the downright disturbing – flicker across the screen. Attempting to take in both at once, we are suddenly made uncomfortably aware of how our eyes are drawn irresistibly to the screen. This has worrying implications for theatre too and for the liveness that we so prize in contrast with the mediatisation of every other sphere of life.
But for all its concern about the huge power the screen wields over our lives, this is a show which is itself filled with the things. Unlike the clumsy projections that all too often find their way into shows stamping themselves with the ‘multimedia’ tag, here the technology is beautifully and expertly integrated into the body of the piece, offering a string of stunning visuals. Like our own strange romance with moving images, Watch iT!’s relationship with the screen is a love/hate one.