As the flames rose we danced to the sirens, the sirens

Sleepwalk Collective
Contact Theatre, Manchester

Iara Solano Arana in ...the sirens Credit: Sleepwalk Collective

Flare International Festival of New Theatre 2015 opened on Monday with a performance by Spanish live art and theatre group Sleepwalk Collective at Contact.

Billed as “a joyous and desperate attempt to re-work cinematic and cultural clichés into something heartfelt and profound,” As the flames rose we danced to the sirens, the sirens could be more accurately described as one woman’s quest to lose herself.

Iara—played by Iara Solano Arana—takes to the stage in a black dress, heels and blonde Monroe-esque wig, clearly invoking images of Hollywood sex symbols. She envisions various ways in which she could die, and so disappear: jumping from a high building, being tied to train tracks—a classic silent movie trope—and run over, even having a freak accident onstage.

Having enacted her own death several times, Iara then attempts to lose her identity by imitating different characters. She pours herself glasses of wine and drinks them in the manner of men attempting seduction, women in love, or people trying to forget. By the end of this sequence, she is drunk herself, temporarily achieving mental obscurity. Finally, Iara performs a disappearing act by sawing herself in half, appearing afterwards as a brightly lit floating head.

Disappointingly little of this actually incorporates “the iconography of B-movies and early cinema” promised by the entry in the Flare 15 guide. The highlight of ...the sirens does exhibit this influence however.

A black and white Greta Garbo film clip is projected onto a screen, and Iara—having covered herself in white powder—throws herself in front of the light and attempts to merge with the black and white figures. Her desire to be immortal, iconic and loved like a movie star is powerful and relatable, but the scene is soon over.

The production value of ...the sirens is far less complicated than the ideas it communicates. While the use of actual film footage is effective, Iara delivers her lines using a microphone, constantly doing battle with an overly loud soundtrack. The sparing use of spotlights and predominant darkness on stage means Iara is often hard to see in her black dress. Perhaps this is a deliberate decision, but, given the visual nature of film, it seems a strange one.

Fortunately, there is plenty of humour to lighten the intensity. At times, Iara seems like a stand-up comedian, sitting casually on a chair and addressing her audience directly. She has a definite rapport with the audience, getting big laughs for sharing her hatred of dolphins and making self-mocking asides about pretentious theatre. (Her imagined death mid-performance—falling and hitting her head on the back wall—is greeted by its spectators as part of the piece, and garners huge acclaim).

If anything, Iara’s relationship with her audience is the most important part of ...the sirens. There is certainly “troubling intimacy” in her breathy delivery into the microphone, in the projected images of her insides—from when she inexplicably swallows a camera—and in the moment when she invites audience members onstage to do what they like to her. (There was only one taker.) Arguably this intimacy reflects the way the public dissects movie stars, adoring, scrutinising and hungrily consuming them.

As a stand-alone character, however, Iara lacks a distinct identity because she is trying to disappear. Instead of developing, Iara stagnates, and, without any other characters to share the stage in this one-woman show, there is a fundamental lack of variety. 

While ...the sirens is interesting and highly unusual, at times it seems like an unrelated string of performance art pieces—they grab your attention for a fleeting moment, but don't form a cohesive theatrical whole.

Reviewer: Georgina Wells

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