A singer in a gaudy headdress stands on a patch of graveled Greenwich waste ground at dusk, miming in total silence. Fifty-odd audience members watch, listening to a folk-inflected cover of AC/DC’s Hell’s Bells through headphones, while a faceless grey figure dances under a spotlight in the far distance.
Not Club Silencio but Motor Show, the latest collaboration between choreographer Frauke Requardt and David Rosenberg, creator of London’s finest ex-underground bar/cabaret/art installations ‘Shunt’. Like their earlier collaboration Electric Hotel (2008), Motor Show is a surreal mix of theatre and abstract dance acted out at a distance from the audience, to a soundtrack of music and effects played over headphones. It is also perhaps as close as we’ll ever get to Lost Highway On Ice.
It registers from the start as a Lynchian remix of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (1594), in which several randy young couples hiding out in the wilderness fall into a shared dream. Here though, we have what looks like three identical versions of the same couple, parked side by side in identical cars but oblivious to each other, even as they go through identical motions.
The three versions of the couple drink, dance, argue, and eventually copulate in synch, which becomes breathtaking in one complex dance/sex scene as all six performers glide in and out of and around their cars, in near-perfect unison. When one or other of the couples does deviate it’s usually intentional; subtle little differences inserted to tell us that these pairs are not really identical at all, merely so alike that we aren’t able to easily tell them apart.
The effect is to undermine any sense that the love we are witnessing is unique or meaningful, which is usually the key message of any dramatic work centred on a man and a woman dancing together. Human coupling is presented here in the same way we see the mating of animals, any given “couple” seeming to us to be interchangeable with any other (at one point the six actually do swap partners, apparently without noticing). The number climaxes with a chorus line of pale, male arses bobbing up and down through grimy windscreens – an elegant “Fuck you” to the dignified depictions of sexuality preferred by traditional dance.
The lovers are surrounded by a cast of characters, some magical and some mundane, whose disconnected dramas all add to a central contrast between solitude and togetherness. A schoolgirl climbs out of the couple’s trunk, unnoticed by them, and wanders the wasteland as prey for various predators. A well-dressed man desperately seeks human company, the schoolgirl’s in particular, often erupting into twitching, screaming fits of frustration. A bizarre figure in red stalks along the outskirts, seeming to have the head and antlers of a deer, but never approaching us close enough to be seen clearly.
The unorthodox venue is not just a trendy gimmick but provides unique opportunities which are used ingeniously throughout. Staging everything at a distance of around a hundred yards from the audience means that we never get to see the action clearly enough for it to clash with the accompanying audio, produced by TV/theatre sound composers Ben and Max Ringham. Clever use of lighting directs our attention back and forth through the darkness as effectively as film editing, while actors vanish and reappear in different positions unexpectedly.
Piping the sound through headphones makes every car door slam and crunching footstep seem cartoonishly crisp and close despite the distances involved, in co-director Rosenberg’s words resulting in “a large-scale performance that is a spectacle but also allows the audience to intimately engage with the characters”. It also completely removes the possibility of being distracted from the material by the talking, coughing and/or scratching of any chumps around you, resulting in one of the most relaxing and unchumpified theatre visits I can remember for some time. (Flickbook is campaigning to have a similar system introduced to all UK cinemas in time for the Olympics – please register your support in The Forums.)
The foreground goes almost entirely unused, with one dramatic exception early on when a beaten up Jaguar tears straight towards us, skidding to a stop about ten feet from the stalls. The thick cloud of dust this throws up envelops the audience completely for some moments, perhaps the first time I’ve ever literally choked on a play. Now that’s something you couldn’t do at the National, even on that really big stage that goes round and round.
By its surrealist nature the play lacks clear narrative progression, imitating the logic of dreams, but towards the end a pretty clear emotional message starts to emerge re. the exclusionary nature of intimacy, and particularly of romantic happiness. The well-dressed, lonely man falls into a catatonic trance after one of his solitary rages, taken in by a passing drifter as though he were an invalid. The schoolgirl, hiding in the trunk of a wrecked car, is burned alive by the deer-headed demon, who ignites it with one thrusting gesture. Later she reappears only to be preyed on by the creature again, lured into a caravan by tinkling ice-cream van music to be beaten and trapped in a feverish, endless dance.
Two of the identical couples divide, the men driving away to leave their girlfriends running in circles like panicked chickens, arms blindly outstretched. From then on they wander, hand in hand like little girls, looking for someone else to follow. Meanwhile our one intact heterosexual unit drives off in blissful ignorance, waking from a dark dream in which the others remain trapped. They are oblivious and invincible to the nightmares surrounding them. Even the deer-headed demon fails to immolate them as it did the schoolgirl, its wild gestures and red flashes stubbornly refusing to spark into flame, despite it having a fiddle with their engine.
Dark, funny, and in parts technically brilliant, Motor Show has now ended its London run, but has already been performed in Brighton and Norwich and could easily move on to a new location. Anywhere with a patch of unused wasteground, in theory, though the Docklands skyline did make for a spectacular backdrop.
Incidentally, the music consists almost entirely of AC/DC covers sung by Laura Braun, who filters their sexy, boozey, Satanic lyrics through her own sweet, alt. folk sound, creating a sound both soothing and unsettling. Fingers crossed for an album release.
Read a short interview with co-director David Rosenberg here