at Warwick Arts Centre, Saturday 27th April 2013

“None of this is real, of course

Last year, when I saw Fuel Theatre’s Ring, I complained that it felt like a case of form over content, and that Glen Neath’s text did not quite match up to the brilliance of David Rosenberg’s concept. Though I’d still broadly stand by that, Sleepwalk Collective’s AMUSEMENTS has cast some light on why perhaps it didn’t work, and it may now be useful to reconfigure my thoughts on the matter. Both pieces, you see, ask audiences to place earphones over their heads so that they may play with questions of experience and utilise all the tools of an immersive sound design, which is used successfully by both SC and Fuel. I think my problem, however, lies in the fact that by putting lots of people in a room and aurally shutting them off to the world around them, what both companies do is create an individualised experience which shuns – to an extent – the theatrical context in which it takes place.

This isn’t to say that AMUSEMENTS is unsuccessful. Far from it, in fact, the reason being that visuals are introduced to the sound to help us experience the piece. And experience is the word, because Sammy Metcalfe’s production (presented at Warwick Arts Centre as part of the (L)one Festival) is all about the way our senses give us information about the world around us so that the company’s text and sound design merge with Iaro Solano Arana’s performance to properly make us feel something.

At the beginning of the show, as the lights go down on a small patch of green carpet and an empty pair of stilettos, we place our own personal pair of headphones over our head, and are immediately taken to another place, with long sustained noises and ethereal effects. A voice suddenly punctures the aural landscape and we become aware of a shadowy figure walking across the stage. We imagine it is her speaking the poetic lines about spectatorship and experience, but it’s difficult to tell. The lights slowly go up, and its clear she’s going to be our guide for the next forty minutes.

The subject of the piece is the notion that the only things we know to be truthful are those we experience directly with our own senses. It’s a topic which everyone from Kant to Dunne has discussed, and though AMUSEMENTS doesn’t exactly add to the debate, it theatricalises the questions which are raised when we talk about perception.

Arana constantly reminds us that we are watching a piece of theatre, but the reactions to the binaural sound design and the low-level lighting still feels completely real. At one point, as a result of the audio being played into my ears, the changes in lighting and, perhaps, my general fatigue, it felt like the stage was flickering, like a 1920 film. And this was just after shivers sped down my spine.

Yet we know these reactions aren’t real. They’ve been manufactured by the confines and techniques of the piece and replayed in order to have some semblance of reality, essentially making it the theatrical equivalent of The Only Way is Essex.

“Our bodies are playgrounds for one another”

Another running theme is that of sensuality – specifically female – and its presentation. By amplifying Arana’s breath and focussing on moments in the text when sex is foregrounded, the company contemplate the ways in which the female form is sexualised and its commodification in contemporary society (though there is a question mark over whether or not they capitalise on that themselves). She takes her knickers off and leaves them lying on the floor, discarded and unnecessary  One particularly memorable moment sees the figure gesturing on her body to the places that are most sensitive to touch, and though that’s one sense which is not exploited here, there’s something about the lightness with which she does it that helps us to experience it too.

Without a doubt the strongest aspect of AMUSEMENTS is its sound design, which takes us on a journey and allows us to feel more than the visuals and the text itself, taking us from a space inside of us to space outside of the earth’s atmosphere. Repeating a simple electronic motif and interspersing long wailing noises, it puts us in mind of Christobel Tapia de Veer’s music for UtopiaThere’s also an impressive moment when Arana’s vocals are shifted down in pitch to sound more masculine, thus highlighting the distance between the masculine and feminine voices.

“None of this is real, of course”

Unlike Ring, this is definitely a piece which needs a theatre, relying as it does on images to create its experience. But none of this gets away from the fact that we still essentially experience this alone. Though we are aware of people sat around us, we have no idea how they are reacting and so the collective experience of theatre is minimised. It may be fitting that this solo piece is turned into an individualised experience for audience members, but it still feels strange at the end not knowing when or whether to applaud. The usual protocol seems to shift, so much so that this is in danger of becoming the overriding memory rather than the thing itself. Which would be a shame, because AMUSEMENTS is one of those shows which finds a part of you which you didn’t really know existed and sticks a knife in, forcing us to question our own senses and consider what makes anything in life a ‘real’ experience.


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