Devised and Performed by Zena Birch, Tom Bowtell, Susannah Hart, Julian Maynard Smith, Helen Morse Palmer
Station House Opera
Battersea Arts Centre
Mind Out is a new work by Station House Opera, a company which has been producing experimental theatre since 1980. The production is an attempt to separate mind from body and character from performer. The blurb states that in Mind Out, the company seeks to 'explore the impossible question of what it is like to be mindless'.
The question is not new - philosophy, psychology, medicine and science each have their approaches, as does art. The zombie theme is an attempt to explore one possible answer, expressed in extreme ways in film by George Romero and others, and in eloquent ways by Philip Pullman, particularly in his early works. Station House Opera's founder and artistic director, Julian Maynard Smith's response is different and quite tame by comparison.
The premise is that each of the five performers take turns at instructing or controlling each other, and being controlled. Thus, at the start of the performance, one of the actors instructs her colleague to take each audience member's ticket, rip it, give it back, usher them in and interact with them in different ways where appropriate. Is the actor her zombie? Her slave? Her accomplice? Is the relationship consensual or not? It's not clear.
Some of these actions are performed mindlessly. Others are more considered. And this is inherent weakness in the concept behind the work.
The separation of mind and body is clearly delineated on stage, and the actors cope with the difficult transitions between simple instructing and carrying out the simpler instructions admirably. The transitions are generally smooth and the scenes flow as effortlessly as possible, given the jagged structure, with almost every action being preceded by a directorial instruction. However, the question of emotional responses is not addressed sufficiently clearly.
Some of the instructions are limited to actions, like picking something up, moving it, putting it down. The separation of these into distinct parts given to different characters provides a light-hearted comic treatment. Other instructions presuppose considered thought, or emotional engagement. This is where the premise behind the production fails to convince. It is never clear whether the emotional motivations behind actions are conceived by the instructor or the actor carrying out the instructions.
The theatre is set up as a flat, shared by the performers, in which they make tea, converse, eat, create crazy sculptures out of found objects, clean, hang up washing, fall in and out of love with each other and explore the extremes of what it means to be human. In the central scene, the setting expands to include the theatre foyer, the facilities and the world outside. One of the actors instructs another to leave the stage, use the facilities, make a phone call, which another actor is instructed by a colleague to engage in. After the call is over, the actor is instructed to leave the facilities (without washing her hands) and she is encouraged to respond to and interact with sounds and sights coming from the foyer. The sounds grow clearer and closer. She re-enters with a jazz trio, playing jazz standards.
The musicians play three numbers before they leave. One of the numbers is It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing, summarising exactly what the whole of the rest of the production lacked. The facility with which the musicians created their sense of ensemble, the way in which banjo and sax switched from rhythmic accompaniment to melodic riffs and solo spots, then went back to supporting the trumpeter's melody was exemplary, never faltering for an instant. This was in stark contrast to the weak sense of ensemble between the actors, with actors supposed to be following instructions anticipating them and carrying them out before the instructor had finished giving them in too many instances to make the conceit credible.
After the band leave, the actors are left discombobulated. A highlight of the section is the construction of a ridiculous assembly of found objects which acts as a machine and a piece of sculpture. Its presence sparks off a dense monologue which acts as a metaphor for any activity elevated to iconic status by society - not least this play. After this, the interaction gradually degenerates, with an understated type of anarchy and rebellion dominating at the end.
The idea of the separation of mind and body is explored in all its minute variations in this production. The room becomes a mirror and thus a metaphor for internal and external spaces within a larger whole; there is comedy and wit, but there is very little credible emotion and the production suffers from this as a whole. It was clever, but clever without any sense of Swing.
Reviewer: Leon Conrad