It is presumably with a sense of playful creativity that Battersea Arts Centre has paired Ring and Karaoke as an unofficial double-bill, meaning the adventurous theatre-goer can head straight from Fuel’s Ring in the Council Chamber in time to catch the start of Sleepwalk Collective’s Karaoke in the Staff Recreation Room.
Even the anodyne room names, a hangover from the BAC’s municipal past and a world away from the bright lights of the West End, are appropriate for two shows that, in very different ways, explore the nature of theatre as performance. For Spanish-English company, Sleepwalk Collective, this exploration is at the very heart of its show but for Fuel it is a by-product of their production.
David Rosenberg and Glen Neath worked with neuroscientists at the UCL Ear Institute in order to grasp how the human brain manages to map the location of sound and have put their learning to good effect in Ring. Set in complete darkness and told to the audience through a pre-recorded audio track via headphones, there is no live performance but we are a long way from the world of the Radio 4 afternoon play. The sound design is very impressive and, in the darkness, through the headphones, you get a fully-rounded 360 degree performance that could easily be mistaken for live action.
The darkness is integral to the plot and so there is not a disconnect with the fact you are sitting in a room with the lights off. The functional surroundings are also important because for the concept to work people need to forget they are an audience member and believe that they could be part of the story. Dwelling on this would spoil the experience but the play hinges on ideas about group therapy and what people may share in the anonymity that darkness provides.
There is a creeping menace within the action that plays on the best type of horror – not one of shocks but a genuine psychological unease. It is that moment of quiet realisation that can be terrifying; the end of The Vanishing or the rich seam of Japanese psychological horrors through the late 90’s. You become, it seems, a central player in the story; it revolves around you and the room itself becomes alive with an action that you know can’t be there but that becomes real through the connections the brain will force you to make.
Ultimately Ring will work to the degree that the individual invests in the concept, any feeling of unease will only come from your own mind. The words and sounds are played directly into your head, and whilst everyone is listening to the same story they are listening to it within their own world. As the narrative unfolds, and scenes are played out, it is still only a sketch, it is the responsibility of the audience to colour the picture in. The success with which you do so will determine how successful you find the show.
Unlike traditional theatre there is no shared experience, and they even go as far as splitting you from those you arrived with so that you cannot break out of the moment. It is reasonable to question whether this really is theatre at all or whether instead it is an experience; a well-produced funhouse attraction and nothing more. If Ring does probably fall into the latter category then it doesn’t undermine what is an enjoyably diverting way to spend 60 minutes.
‘An enjoyably diverting way to spend 60 minutes’ is not a phrase that could be used to Karaoke however. Instead it is a crushingly pretentious show that delivers one of the most aggressively, forced pieces of theatre that I have seen for some time.
Even explaining Karaoke would probably be enough to put many perspective punters off and so, in all fairness, I’ll use Sleepwalk Collective’s own description: ‘Karaoke is a performance about love and rockets for two performers and an autocue. Playing out in the format of karaoke – with text and action read off a screen and projected for all the audience to see –Karaoke is an exercise in anti-theatricality’.
The play felt like a very interesting 15-min sketch that had been stretched to fill an hour. The deadpan delivery and monotonous repetition is presumably supposed to be grating but, even if actions are deliberately without purpose, it shouldn’t actually feel so purposeless. The cute conceit of two performers (Sammy Metcalfe and iara Solano Arana) in an unnamed, unexplained landscape of 1970’s holiday complex meets nihilist wasteland, seemingly spending their time reading from an autocue and performing the actions as required, is interesting until you reach the point it isn’t, and then it becomes irritating and then it goes on and it goes on.
The great proponents of anti-theatre, Durrenmatt, Ionesco and possibly Beckett, created plays that were a deliberate reaction to established theatrical tradition in order to tackle issues they felt could not be staged in conventional circumstances. Sleepwalk Collective uses similar ideas but one cannot sense the underlying meaning to the action. Everything is presented with the kind of gruelling po-faced intellectualism that is a world away from the surreal humour of Rhinoceros or the playful vaudeville of Waiting for Godot.
We are instructed, as audience members to consider our role in the proceedings, to imagine the singing and the dancing that is not happening on stage, to create the scene that we are having described to us in the monotone performances. However the instructions come across as patronising and pretentious rather than deep and meaningful, and there is a curious defensiveness in the statements that serve to suggest that the audience should consider it their fault if they fail to anything out of it. This kind of antagonistic performance can be spectacular; TR Warszawa’s production of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis still haunts four years later, but it needs to have a clearly defined sense of purpose and this is what’s missing from Karaoke. Ultimately it lacks the rigour necessary to achieve its aims.
It is hard to escape the idea the creators think this radically challenges the notions of what theatre might be rather than radically challenging what an audience member might be willing to put up with. It is worth considering that, with playfulness and a lightness of touch, Ring managed to cover much the same ground and people bought into the concept willingly and without requiring instruction.
Trailer for Ring
Trailer for Karaoke