Monday, 7 April 2008

Instructions for Modern Living - Barbican Pit

Written for CultureWars.org.uk

In theory Instructions for Modern Living should be great. The two performers (New Zealand writer/performer Duncan Sarkies and musician Nic McGowan) enter and sit amidst a cluster of hi-tech gadgetry, microphones, a sound desk, keyboard, video camera and laptop. There's even a xylophone and a theremin. A live-feed video projection starts up. Sure, cynics could happily dismiss this approach as 'avant-garde by numbers' and namecheck everyone from the Woosters or Throbbing Gristle through to Katie Mitchell, but then if you're making a certain sort of work, then the stage is going to look a certain way.

Sarkies starts talking slowly into his microphone about a ghost who lives in his flatshare. His companion starts playing slow melodic keyboard music. The video projection fades from the musician to an unwavering shot of a clapboard house. The commentary goes on. And on. One senses the audience asking themselves if they could actually endure 85 minutes of this. Then, after an agonising ten minutes a new section starts. This one is a bit faster, more upbeat, it also features Sarkies neatly using a pitch-shifter on the microphone allowing him to talk in voices pitched higher or lower than his own. He does both halves of a conversation between two blokes in a pub - or maybe its a guy and a girl - who are talking about racism in Britain, and how it's worse than racism in New Zealand. This is a good deal more interesting the the ghost bit, but not terribly acute or incisive. Scenes continue to change, hopping between the solo monologue and these solo duologues. There's one which, as well as having the high voice and the low voice, also has Sarkies doing accents and the computer providing the atmospheric crackle and white noise of the radios used to talk to the Apollo space missions.

All the while McGowan plods through his tunes, making much use of a loop sampler that allows him to record what he's playing and then start playing new bits over the top, building each section's accompaniment into quite a bulk of sound. Annoyingly, these all sound very similar, with the various layers turning up in much the same order every time, so that after a while one's patience starts to wear a bit thin.

Then there's the content of Sarkies's text – the pages of which he throws to the floor once they are completed, so the audience can see precisely how many pages are left – it is downbeat, not especially acute and generally offers precious little insight or hope. His vision of the world, unless he was being ironic – in which case he might want to flag it up a bit so was can all enjoy the joke – was pretty much that capitalism sucks and we are all powerless. Beyond this; our personal lives suck, and no one is very happy. Men and women don't get on. All we can look forward to is dead end jobs and loveless marriages. The overall effect is like listening to a nasal weasel complain bitterly for 80 minutes to the slower songs from Air's Moon Safari.
Close to the end he asks “When did you last feel truly alive?”
“This afternoon, thanks.” I think.

1 comment:

Sean said...

I had to leave after 70 mins, I was nearly dead.

Spot on comments.