Kourtney Kardashian by Sleepwalk Collective, at the Battersea Arts Centre
Sleepwalk Collective have put on some of my favourite theatre performances. They don’t really do plays, if anything they stage “anti-plays”, mainly actors speaking softly and slowly into microphones, deconstructing what it means to perform, what it means to be facing an audience. All of this is performed with a sonic landscape audio performance that makes the chairs vibrate and is reminiscent of some of the best songs Mogwai ever put out. If you like post-rock and creative performances, you’ll love a Sleepwalk Collective performance.
The one I went to see at the Battersea Arts Centre was Kourtney Kardashian. It is part of a Kardashian trilogy, Kim, Khloe and now Kourtney. I haven’t seen Kim and Khloe, though I imagine there is a lot of themes that run through them, touching on what it is to exist in a chaotic world of multimedia demands and aching longing. One was a ballet, though I imagine it was probably a deconstruction of what a ballet is, performed through a prism of questioning gender expectations.
KK has no plot – of course – but it has a frame that it uses for its insights. Basically it is someone (everyone?) remembering an event in 1992 when they were eight and their parents performed in an opera performance of the Marriage of Figaro. The two actors, dressed in gold dresses made out of the kind of foil you wrap around electrocution victims, perform snatches of faded memories of that performance, almost like children playing dress up, or wearing their parents work shoes.
KK is itself structured like an opera. On the screen behind the actors the key moments of opera are identified and projected, the overture, the prelude, a duet, and so on. They provide a helpful glossary of terms (“Canzonetta – a type of secular vocal composition, generally dealing with pastoral, irreverent or erotic themes”) for the operatic novice such as myself. (I know, I am supremely uncultured…)
The reason why someone is remembering back to when they were 8? Well in a world of climate change and potential social collapse, it is a warm memory, a happy, innocent and barely understood incident in the life of a child before the adult world tore through their naivety and put unbearable pressures and responsibilities upon them. In this way the suspension of disbelief when watching any performance or actors on stage pretending their isn’t an audience, begins to sublimate into the way that we want to live fantasies, safe in the comfort of unreality. In the way that the audience is escaping the outside world.
So too do actors live fantasies, performing unreal events with heroic and wonderful endings (“Figaro gets the girl”). No more so than when they motion to the speakers behind the audience which starts to blare out canned laughter and applause – the Claque – the modern version of paid audience members, plants in the audience to encourage the right response at the right time.
Breaking free of the dialectic between the performance and the analogy of the opera within the performance, two memorable moments towards the end stuck out. During the recitative one actor – iara Solano Arana adopts a pose, arm aloft, the other at an angle across her chest. Her companion on stage, Nhung Dang asks the audience to let the pose “mature a little”, explaining that such a pose might be valueless normally, but on stage it has value – you paid to see it after all. The value of the pose increase with each second as more and more of your ticket money is gobbled up by the action. Of course this isn’t just a question of consumption by the audience, it is also one of human labour, the act of moving and performing. A brilliant take on labour power, labour time and the use/exchange value of performers – Marx would have been proud.
Then there is the final melodrama, a crescendo of music as Dang starts an elaborate and bizarre inflight safety demonstration, her motions a parody of the false safety that air stewards provide when you are on a plane 30,000 feet in the air and you hit engine failure and you are going into the ground like a fucking dart. And they want you to imagine that you could even hope to survive such a thing, and even if you did survive you wouldn’t end up eating each other. And even if you do think you are safethe outside world is “in free fall”.
Both actors start to dance in synchrony – playing out a little motion before the end of the world arrives and all the safe and warm memories of before dissolve and they can’t save you anymore. After all “sometimes easy to get lost in memory” even if you know you shouldn’t.
They leave us with a touching message of finality about the human condition as we possibly accept the end of our species: they say “we could have been better, we could have been worse”. We could have been better, but then we could have been worse. Like all the memories we have to hide from the world.