Technology. Dislocation. Parallel lives. Channels of communication that, paradoxically, lead to isolation and alienation. In other hands these could be ponderous, intimidating themes, but Helen Plewis and Steffen Döring, currently associate artists at Oxford House in East London, have a captivating lightness of touch.
Early One Morning as the Sun Sets, for their company Zephyr in Zanussi, is a disarming mix of the witty, thought-provoking and downright spooky. It could certainly do with a snappier title, and its opening section is rather too obscure – but it soon hits its stride with a comic scene about mobile phones. Seke Chimuntegwede, Eylon Bar-El and Mying Hee Han meet up like friends – but, to a tweeting, beeping cacophony of ringtones and message alerts, their encounter splinters into a myriad conversational fragments as they stay resolutely plugged into their mobile networks.
There’s another comic episode where Bar-El explains, in grand scientific terms, the various ways that people disappear into alternate universes – with droll, po-faced demonstrations by three performers, such as Montse Ventura illustrating stars going out with a little winking hand, showing their energy escaping into another world by deflating like a deadpan balloon.
It’s not all comedy. In an unnerving take on daily routine, Ventura acts out a working day – waking up, going to work, fielding phonecalls, going to a party. But she’s a vacant automaton, a puppet following someone else’s script – Bar-El’s, who manoeuvres her limp body, intoning thoughts and messages into her passive ear: get up, say good morning, apologise for delay, ring boyfriend.
the interval comes to seem like a kind of choreographic screensaver in the middle of the show
The piece highlights that sense of dislocation in several other scenarios. Han watches English TV and talks back to it in Korean. Gabriele Reuter folds in upon herself in a self-absorbed, introspective solo – but we watch her image multiplied and fragmented on a live video feed. And finally, in the eeriest episode, Chimuntegwede (“japanchiki”) and Reuter (“surferdude”) act out a internet chatroom encounter between a supposedly blond American guy and a purportedly 13-year-old Japanese schoolgirl. “Are you really 13, question mark. You sound older, full stop,” intones Reuter. “No, full stop. I am 15, exclamation mark, exclamation mark,” replies Chimuntegwede, equally expressionless. Against projected images of fields and trees, their artificial chat session soullessly entwines desire, fantasy, commerce and deceipt.
Special mention should go to the interval, during which the cast perform a “choreographic accumulation” lasting 12 minutes. Reuter helpfully explains what’s going on, but reassures us that we’re free to go and get drinks or have a pee if we want. Many of us do. And when we return, the accumulation has built up into an intricate pattern – so the interval comes to seem like a kind of choreographic screensaver in the middle of the show. That unforced and yet unexpected mix of the serious and the comic, and the generous attitude towards the audience, are thoroughly characteristic of this wry and engaging piece.