Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Sans Objet, Southbank Centre

Review: Sans Objet, Southbank Centre

Published on Culture Wars, 24.01.2011

Place any mechanized object on the stage and you immediately beg questions about the nature of performance. That Sans Objet, which either stars or centres on a vast, industrial robotic arm, isn’t overwhelmed by ontology is credit to the sheer virtuosity of Aurélien Bory’s composition. His choreography, both of man and machine, offers a 360˚ interrogation of technology, combining the ridiculous and the sublime such that it’s never less than dazzling.

The tendency, of course, is to anthropomorphize the machine and Bory encourages that by initially covering it with an expanse of black plastic. Underneath something indiscernible stirs, the plastic crackling like melting ice. Without its constituent parts, the machine is a bitumen-like mass morphing between shapes: here, a preying mantis; there is lizard or dinosaur. Momentarily it seems human, as if peacefully cycling through sun salutations.

When its finally uncloaked, it looks like the clenched fist of a bionic arm: staunch and muscular and, despite being a product of the 1970’s, futuristic.

Two men in black suits circle it, like Pinteresque strangers, and suddenly the machine becomes timid and vulnerable: an animal backed into a corner. Over the next hour, the relationship changes again and again. In friendlier sections, the pair tend to it like horse whispers and play with it like tourists swimming with dolphins. Elsewhere, it seizes control and lashes out, sometimes tossing them around the space like playthings or breaking up the stage beneath their feet.

What gives Sans Objet (literally, Without Purpose) its sheer beauty is that, contrary to our instinct to anthropomorphize, it is so categorically not human. Its movements are mathematical: the lines it cranes across are perfectly straight; its precision is pinpoint. Its presence makes the stage a three-dimensional grid of points to be plotted. At moments within, it operates with the delicacy of a surgeon and the more exact the machine, the shoddier we seem in relation.

More striking than that, though, is its power. It’s rare to see a force capable of actually threatening humanity on stage. The worlds created are fragile anyway and everything onstage is under human control. True, the robot is too. Its operator’s legs and remote control are visible at all times, but it is easy to forget and attribute it autonomy or imagine control being lost. San Objet might just be theatre’s Terminator moment. It plucks the cast into the air like toys in a perfect arcade machine, before lifting huge chunks of the stage and standing them vertically. But it does so entirely without strain or effort, a factor we expect of the most human of art forms.

Bory is clever enough to turn this threat on us, not just by association, but also in the present moment. When the machine turns its gaze our way, one wonders, perhaps only for a second, whether it might rip up its roots and run amok in the auditorium before rampaging down the South Bank. The final coup de theatre, in which the black tarpaulin is hung in front of the stage and beaten like metal being hammered into shape, is genuinely terrifying. The first amplified blast, a stomach-shaking boom, has the audience jolt as one. (My notebook, at this point, just reads: “Fuck Me.” An annotated heart-palpitation.)

But contradiction is everything in Bory’s composition and, here, wit sits next to horror. At times, the robot becomes the mime artist’s cheat: moving walls to stretch the old elongated limb routine into new territory. Bory spoofs classical mime or, perhaps, lovingly zaps it into the future. The performers, Oliviers Alenda and Boyer, clown perfectly and understatedly, exchanging blank looks of confusion. Again the clown finds his natural habitat: expressing the fallibility and feebleness, the fit-for-purposeless of mankind.

Here, Bory makes us wonder if there might be superior possibilities: a daunting proposition that extends our futility into disposability. You leave as astonished as you are aghast. Absolutely world-class.

Photograph: Compagnie 111

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