Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Continuous City, Southbank Centre

Review: Continuous City, Southbank Centre

Published on Culture Wars, 05.07.2010

About a year and a half ago, I renewed my mobile phone contract. Aiming to save a few pennies, I opted against an internet package. And yet, over that time, things have changed. There’s an expectation of instantaneous online communication. We’re obliged to have constant access to one another via the internet housed in our pockets and handbags. It’s ended up costing me a small fortune.

But what was it Bob Hoskins said? It’s good to talk, right? What with the rise of communicative technology, that’s never been easier. Yet Continuous City lays out the prosecuting case against the technologies that keep us connected. As convenient as communication has become, we’re no better at actually communicating. Arguably – and The Builders Association argue just this – we’re losing the ability to do so in any real or meaningful way.

To that end, we centre on an emergent social networking site called Xubu, designed to house and express more of your personality than a mere profile by the use of video-blogging. It provides a chance to speak to the world and forge connections without the obstruction of distance. Its chairman Mike is spreading the word around the globe, hopping between far off cities and landscapes, keeping in regular – almost constant – video contact with his daughter in London. Meanwhile the technological genius behind Xubu, JV is sat at his desk, window swapping between various shallow and dishonest conversations with family members, business partners and flirtatious women.

To dismiss Continuous City as a rant, however, would be unfair. The density of ideas contained within means that it sits somewhere between invective and treatise. It is carefully spun, examining the nature of the world given this newfound ability for permanent connection. It asks what location, separation and distance mean when no longer obstructions to experience and communication. Onscreen characters introduce themselves according to their current city, home town or their place of origin and yet that reflects only an abstract notion, offset by a sense of bland ubiquity. Even cities themselves have started succumbing to the copy-and-paste mirroring of globalisation, with Eiffel Towers in Beirut, Las Vegas and Yanam, India. Places conform to one’s preconceptions: Mike’s hired help Deb tells the internet that she knew London before arriving through Absolutely Fabulous and other cultural citations. Icons and images – holiday snapshots taken by others – stand in for actual experiences, even for reality itself.

But the suggestion is that such effects are not merely confined to the virtual or personal perception, but actually cause fissures in the world at large. After all, what is reality but our perception of it? And in this, Continuous City suggests a breakdown, as if reality has not just been supplanted, but eroded. The images that appear on screens – and most of the narrative is told via conversations held with onscreen faces – are regularly disrupted, spread across multiple screen and broken up by gaps, as if the world is somehow lost in transmission. It looks a shattered pane now fragmented and mid-explosion.

My reservation is that, for all that I found the exposition fascinating, I’m not sure that it’s best served by theatre as a medium. Or rather, I’m not sure whether The Builders Association have played to the medium’s strengths, let alone using theatre to its maximum capacity.

The prime difficulty its faces is that its main thrust is about saying nothing of import and, unless its treated with ingenuity or playing with the way in which nothing is said, that makes for unswervingly flat drama. The problem is that, despite looking like its storytelling techniques have been contorted into something radical, Continuous City takes a more or less straightforwardly linear path. We see Xubu’s gradual development and near-collapse, we see a father’s various almost indistinguishable video-phone conversations with his daughter, we see a nanny build a relationship with a child and eventually drag her away from the screen.

The reason its narrative looks unfamiliar, both jagged and fragmented, is because the staging reflects the interface of the computer screen, splitting our concentration with multiple tabs and windows. That has two results: first, a clash between the live and the mediatised and second, a blandness of imagery. The vast majority of content as seen consists of a conversation stitched together from a video playing on one or other of the screens and a performer addressing a webcam, which is in turn fed live to another screen. Around that there are too few moments where an image is constructed onstage. The two exceptions are when the daughter lies beneath her computer desk, almost snail-like, suggesting the virtual as a home and when she falls asleep, camera in hand, permanently (and physically) connected much as the Na’vi plug into nature in James Cameron’s Avatar.

Admittedly, there are some enthralling questions around their use of media. One can never be entirely sure whether the videos are exclusively pre-recorded or actually performed ‘live’ and transmitted into the theatre. Some could only be pre-recorded, given the variety of global locations in which the same person (Mike) appears. Most seem scripted but a few are genuine webcam recordings by non-involved individuals, which have been framed as semi-fictional by being stamped with the Xubu logo. Again the question of distorted reality arises. However, where The Builders Association err is in mediatising the live by using microphones, which – though it perhaps emphasises the irreversible melding of worlds – softens the conflict.

Essentially, I suppose, they have tried to turn the media and technology against itself. I can’t help feeling, however, that this weakens their argument by confusing it. There is something hypocritical about dismissing communication via technology as a newfangled novelty whilst relying on its allure to do so. In other words, Continuous City is crying out for something more present (even though it conscious rearranges its content to be time and place specific, discussing the World Cup and setting itself in London, even referencing the Southbank Centre itself) and its subject matter is in desperate need of a distorted form.

For all that, the ideas contained within make this an extraordinary piece of theatre, albeit more as thesis than theatre. Its polemical nature, battering exhaustively at the stronghold of technology, is violently affecting. It seems to stand around warning of impending apocalypse, a mode made all the more hard-hitting by grounding what seems slightly futuristic (at least, in this country; is it different in American or Japan?) as entirely of the present moment. What struck me – once again – was this sense of the living inferno. That technology, created by man for man’s needs, to comfort us, is steering us towards a dystopian era of inhumanity. We are, it yells, sliding towards anaesthesia, slowly morphing and distorting into androids. Admittedly, I could have done with some balance – a single, tiny nod to the positive side of all this, one moment of genuine connection that would have been impossible – but to ask for that is probably to undermine the force of the tirade’s aggression.

All in all, as theatre Continuous City is problematic, but I’ve rarely left a theatre with such a bleak prognosis ringing so forcefully in my ears and such angry dismay rising in my gut.

Photograph: The Builders Association

 

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