MIAF: Alladeen <i>and</i> Failing Kansas ~ theatre notes

Monday, October 11, 2004

MIAF: Alladeen and Failing Kansas

Melbourne International Arts Festival: Alladeen, The Builders Association and motiroti. Directed by Marianne Weems, conceived by Keith Khan, Marianne Weems and Ali Zaidi; performed by Rizwan Mirza, Heaven Phillips, Tanya Selvaratnam, Jamine Simhalan, Jeff Webster. Failing Kansas, conceived, performed and directed by Mikel Rouse, film footage by Cliff Baldwin.

These days most of us move between real and virtual spaces without thinking about it much. We have become used to the intimate spectacle of atrocities which are beamed instantly into our living rooms, the multiple identities we assign ourselves in phonespeak and cyberspace, the hyper-saturation of media images and the seductions of celebrity culture. Consciously or not, we swim through a flux of unsatisfied desire that lives in the eye rather than the tangibility of smell and touch; a desire which, if it is not precisely disembodied, is fragmented and displaced, and so becomes both more potent and more dangerous.

Such ways of being can create a desolating dislocation, and Alladeen, a spectacular multimedia work which explores the decentralised world of call centres, leaves a disturbing aftertaste. While it forthrightly explores the technological mechanisms of contemporary colonialism, it is by no means a technophobic show; Alladeen is at once celebratory and admonitory of our brave new wired-up world. But one of its most telling images is a woman dancing alone in a karaoke nightclub, talking to her absent lover on her mobile phone.

A collaboration between the New York-based The Builder's Association and the London company motiroti, Alladeen is itself a phenomenon of globalisation. The theatre piece is only one part of a triptych which includes a website (www.alladeen.com) and a music video. On the stage, the action moves between London, New York and Bangalore, between projected animations, documentary footage, live film and actors. Like all successful multimedia, it reveals and exploits the gap between the real power of theatre - the fleshly presence of actors and audience - and the potent, decontextualised image.

The informing metaphor is the story of Alladin, the poor boy who, through no fault of moral goodness, finds a genie and is transformed into a prince. It becomes a means of expressing the unsatisfied desire which drives consumer culture, but it also has more profound implications. Alladin, one of the most popular oriental fairytales, first appears in early translations of A Thousand and One Nights, but was not one of the original stories: it was inserted by a creative 17th century Frenchman. Alladin is one of the many narratives by which the Orient was culturally imagined and colonised by the West, a process Edward Said traced in his remarkable and necessary classic Orientalism.

Like Said, Alladeen does not take a monumental "clash of civilisations" approach to the question of Western colonisation, but instead is alert to the nuances of human beings as social animals, how cultural influences do not simply travel a vector of brute force, but are multiple and cross-pollinating. The documentary footage of call centre workers in Bangalore, for example, does not reveal a downtrodden third world population, but something rather more complex: a number of ambitious and energetic young people who are aware of the comedy inherent in their work, where they must take on a false persona and learn how to speak American. (They are given lectures on such cultural icons as Friends, and probably know more facts about Illinois than most people who live there).

None of this makes the ruthless eradication of any trace of "mother tongue" from Indian call centre workers less disturbing; success equates to becoming a kind of cultural ghost. And this disembodiment of identity is not confined to call centre workers: it is an aspect of the world we all inhabit now. Alladeen exposes the essential isolation of the age of communication, where human intimacy fractures on the bright, illusory surfaces of projected desires.

Failing Kansas is at the other end of the multimedia experience: rather than a stage saturated with so many images that it is impossible to know where to direct your eye, Mikel Rouse gives us a man, a backing tape and a screen of black and white images.

Failing Kansas is drawn from Truman Capote's masterly non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, a book generally credited with being an early harbinger of the New Journalism. Capote spent six years researching the apparently reasonless murder of the Clutter family, a wealthy Kansas wheat farmer, his wife and their two children, each killed by a shotgun blast to the forehead by two drifters, Perry Smith and Dick Hicock. The murderers stole forty dollars, a radio and a pair of binoculars.

The Clutter family, law-abiding church goers, could have stepped straight out of a Norman Rockwell illustration. No one, as local residents told police, didn't like the Clutters. Their murderers couldn't have come from a more different America. Hicock's family was stable but poor, and he had a background of petty crime. Perry's was broken and violent, and two of his siblings had committed suicide. Perry, more sensitive and more guilt-ridden than Hickock, was the focus of Capote's interest - he recognised that, but for the grace of God, it could have been him. At the time, his empathetic portrayal of Perry caused a scandal.

Mikel Rouse is not concerned to retell a story which anyone can go and read for themselves. Instead, he uses the book as an occasion for an extraordinary effusion of lyrical riffs which spring from a variety of sources: phrases in the book; songs by Perry himself; contemporary hymns; and fragments of poetry by Robert Service and Thomas Gray. He uses a technique he calls "counterpoetry", "the use of multiple pitched voices in strict metric counterpoint", to create live and pre-recorded layers of words and music. Dressed in a grey suit, standing in front of the mic, he delivers the songs in an obsessive sprachgesung, with a strange and oddly compelling physicality which owes more to rock than drama.

The staging is starkly simple: at the end of each aria, if I can call it that, the stage blacks out, Rouse moves to another microphone on the stage, the lights come up on him, and he begins again. The lighting is subtle and evocative, a palette of soft yellows and whites. Behind him, a grainy black and white film shows images of rural US towns, objects, photographs, news headlines, neon lights, beauty shows, cars and roads, people talking silently to the camera: a moving collage as repetitive and hypnotic in its own way as the endlessly iterated words.

The more words and phrases are repeated, the more detached they become from ordinary usages; it's a work in which meaning is located in texture, rhythm, nuance and context, rather than in the semantics of words. It is in this way a profoundly poetic experience. Rouse creates a claustrophobic, paranoid mindspace in which thoughts echo and jostle and repeat, as if we were witness to a vocalising of the junk in someone's brain. Failing Kansas is at once a lament, a meditation on hope and redemption and a portrayal of a savagely forlorn America. And it's absolutely riveting.

Melbourne International Arts Festival

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