Julian Maynard Smith's cultishly renowned site-specific oddballs Station House Opera return to their original station house in Bow to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Acme Studios which now occupy the premises. That's the easy part; the hard part is describing Snakes And Ladders.
The audience, seated at the rear of the building, watches as six performers (2M, 4F, as the Samuel French playscripts would have it), er, perform various actions over the upper four storeys of the station: around tables, along walkways, in and out of doors and windows and, yes, up and down ladders. The actions may be solo or in tandem, banal or meaningful (for the characters at least): a character may arrange plant pots along the edge of a walkway, for instance, or two others might engage in competing and often brutal versions of seduction.
As these six get on with their actions, a huge video screen across an entire floor of the central walkway depicts the same characters in similar but seldom identical actions. Sometimes the "flesh" performers follow the "screen" actions precisely (synchronised by a slow pulse of clicks and thuds which persists through most of the wordless 65-minute show), sometimes they delay by a few seconds or two actors perform on different storeys from each other. Sometimes a fleshly character will interact with a space which is empty in his or her world but occupied on the screen by another person. Sometimes great pains will be taken to recreate a screen image: after a video character leaps from a high walkway, a flesh performer carries on various items of detritus to reproduce the video image of the aftermath, finally lugging on the "body" and carefully arranging its limbs in the correct configuration. Sometimes the flesh simply fails to live up to the image.
Any significance is for us to determine, and lies not in the actions themselves, but in the differences between the two versions with which we are presented. It might be a commentary upon the conflict between reality and imagination – upon the extent to which we literally rewrite our perceptions in order to accord with our pre-existing or desired mental scripts – but mostly it's just a rather smart wheeze. Those prepared to trek to Bow and sit for an hour in the cold, dark and quite possibly drizzle, watching semi-intelligible choreography across the backside of a disused fire station, will probably not be disappointed.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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