Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Are You With Us?, SPILL Festival

Review: Are You With Us?, SPILL Festival

Were I ever to run away and join a circus, I would, without the slightest scrap of doubt, join Gob Squad. No other company in the world makes making theatre look quite as much fun as they do. A lot of the time, it looks like they’re in it primarily for the lulz; as if, back in 1994, one of them said, ‘Let’s be artists. That looks like a giggle,’ and the rest went, ‘Yeah, alright. Why not?’

And so, for twenty years, they have run around dressed as superheroes trying record everything in existence. They’ve sprinted through towns with video cameras, making an overnight blockbuster. They’ve recreated iconic film deaths in laundrettes and furniture stores. They’ve played revolutionaries and they’ve danced about. They’ve stage séances for the first dog in space. With cars and flares and rain machines. They must have had a blast.

Sure, other companies make me think harder or feel more. Other companies get deeper under my skin or leave longer-lasting impressions. Some work their way into my dreams. Some even change the way I live my life. Don’t care. Gob Squad make me happy. They make me want to join in.

Watching Are You With Us? – a game of group photos and group therapy – I wanted to get up, get dressed and get involved. For four hours, Gob Squad repeatedly pile into a makeshift photo booth onstage, with a gorgeously gauche blue-sky backdrop and a vintage chaise longue, and they pose for group shots, dressed in some uniform or other. One moment, they’re cowboys. The next, they’re surgeons. They’re prom-goers. They’re prostitutes. They’re naked but for balloons. It looks a treat.

Each round is overseen by one member of the company, who is similarly dressed, but sat in a separate booth, directing proceedings and quizzing the others. (We watch events through two screens onstage.) Each starts with a series of poses, marked by a flashbulb controlled by the ‘director.’ Then, they move into a mini-game or Q&A session with its own distinctive rules: ‘raise your hands if…’, ‘rate the following out of five…’, ‘have you ever…’, ‘who’s most likely to…’ – that sort of thing.

What emerges, strongly, is the tension between individuals and the group. A group, after all, is nothing more than a collection of individuals: working together, yes, but all pulling in different directions too. The poses are gleefully haphazed: one person legs akimbo, another with their back to the camera; one downcast, another jubiliant, someone else baring their breasts. The beauty is very often in the miscellany and the contrasts.

The drama, such as it is, comes in the tension between the ‘director’ and the posers. Every group needs leadership, but leadership generally requires stepping out of the group. So it is here: the director orders the group about, asks insistent, sometimes intrusive, questions. One member is half-coaxed, half-coerced into a recreating a striptease. Dirty laundry and sexual histories get very public airings, not always by choice. Family histories – including Nazi grandparents – are laid bare. Personalities are picked apart. There’s more than a hint of therapy here, and it can sizzle with exploitation.

More than that, though, there’s friendship. Twenty years of it. Everything that’s exposed was previously shared: memories, stories, houses, vans, drinks, food, jokes, beds, kids and so on. The reason Gob Squad can embarrass one another is because they know each other so well and trust each other so much. And here, they let us in. That’s a glorious, often hilarious thing to watch – and a fascinating thing to mull. I’m with you, Gob Squad. I’m with you.

Photograph: Manuel Reinartz

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