The Pit, Barbican Centre; 29th September 2016
What is your relationship to rules? Inside The Machine, you may discover that your freedoms and compliance are not as clear cut as you imagined. The latest show from Collectif and then… is a factory experience with the provocative fun and dark edge of a Black Mirror episode. The project was the beneficiary of the 2016 Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award, and this is the first time a circus-based company has won the commission.
The promenade production has been made for The Pit studio space at the Barbican Centre in collaboration with Serbian participatory machine art collective Karkatag, and is completed by our presence. Whatever degree to which we choose to engage with the activities laid out for us, there is no avoiding the fact that merely being here makes us part of the show.
Before the event kicks off, a table outside conspicuously holds piles of plastic labcoats and a box of safety goggles. We queue to collect them, along with the electronic card that allows us to clock in and out of The Machine. We queue for our name badges. We are John. Another group is Mark. This could be what being part of the Despicable Me minion universe feels like.
Our supervisor is Dave and there are three of him (company co-founders Francesca Hyde and Lucie N’Duhirahe, and Natalie Reckert). As a subtle reminder of our societal control structures, the fact that all the names are male feels important; later, when Dave (Reckert) recites a litany of qualities describing The Perfect Worker, she explicitly declares that ‘he is a man’.
Printed instructions send us to various work stations, designated by yellow numbered signs hung by the different pieces of equipment. It’s not especially unusual to see conveyor belts employed in the service of contemporary circus, but it is unusual to find them used in the factory-process manner for which they were designed. Do we follow our instructions? Do we subvert them? What happens when they’re incomplete? Or when a component appears to be missing?
We handle bags of sweat, sand, or air, loading machine parts both inert and organic. The repetitive, formal nature of circus acts is revealed as Dave (Hyde and N’Duhirahe) offers a workplace demonstration on a pair of aerial loops and hefty A-frame structure that the loops slide to and fro along the top of. Their smiles are those of a proud trainer. Or just another formal step in the process of display that’s on display. Reckert narrates the physics of her shifting handstand, and the synchronous development of this work and her current solo show is apparent in the robotic qualities of speech and movement.
I hand out drinks. I balance a bag of water on another John’s head during our team-building breakout session. Perhaps we underlings are receiving basic training towards the highly developed neck-strength Dave (Hyde) displays later, in a hair-hanging section that foregrounds The Machine‘s themes of autonomy and authority by exerting conflicting demands on our moral and servile compasses.
The activities also suggest more philosophical (or is it political?) notions, to do with perceived function and actual purpose. The job of the machine is to create a show. The job of the show is to reveal the machine. The Machine explodes ‘meta’, and does so with lightness, wry humour, and splashes of circus glitter and fizz. The Oxford Samuel Beckett award is for companies making bold, innovative theatrical work, and The Machine proves Collectif and then… a worthy winner.