The Roof

Frauke Requardt & David Rosenberg
Fuel Theatre
Doon Street Car Park

The Roof Credit: Paul Hampartsoumian
The Roof Credit: Paul Hampartsoumian
The Roof Credit: Paul Hampartsoumian
The Roof Credit: Paul Hampartsoumian

A LIFT commission presented in association with the National Theatre, this is an hour-long piece of physical theatre spread around 360 degrees of stylised urban rooftops designed by Jon Bausor and Rebecca Brower: chimneys, windows, aerials and gantries with gaps between them whose depth is masked by foreground barriers.

The audience stands in the middle of this circle, looks up at the action and listens on earphones, as per a “silent disco“, to a music-driven soundscape by Ben Hales and David Price.

The Roof is a combination of 3D sound, contemporary dance and parkour running that takes the form of a multi-level computer game. A giant scoreboard identifies the current player and gives the number of lives left, level and status.

On the other side of the arena, behind the window of a box-like room, a red-suited female DJ is gyrating to the discs she’s playing. She makes occasional indistinct and banal announcements such as temperatures in cities.

As the game moves on from level to level the room changes its identity. At first it is a radio station studio, then a pharmacy, an accident treatment centre and a tattoo salon. Deliverymen will bring packages here, contestants the squeaking yellow ducks that are awarded when they are successful at some stage of the game.

Is the DJ lady in control? She is wearing a red jumpsuit like the players, so probably not. Is she the goal? Who knows? You have to learn the rules of this game as you play it. And at first it does seem as though you are going to be a player.

A male voice in your ears says, “Look round, I’m just being you,” and begins to give instruction and advice. I did look round, that voice is so real in its placing, but I knew it wasn’t Paul Taylor from The Independent—he was looking round as well.

“You are a blank slate,” you hear, “standing on the shoulders of no one, yours is nature and history… There are no limits. There are plateaux, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man must constantly exceed his level.”

But you don’t actually get to play; you are a mere spectator. The voice tells you a door is opening. Up above you, a trap door pops up above what looked like a chimney pot and out pops the red-clad figure of Danilo Caruso as Player 611. That is the number on his back and on the scoreboard. We are in his mind, or rather he is in ours, as he tells us, “In my pocket I have a city: Atlantis. And in my other pocket a biscuit." (He’s saving that for later).

So he sets out. His first obstacle is a gap to jump. He tries and fails: that’s one life lost. He starts again and gets across, but a cauliflower-headed figure coming out of nowhere knocks him back into the abyss. Two lives gone. Third time he finds the way to solve but he’s down to his last life and can’t afford to make another mistake.

There is no easy story to assemble, no real logic to his encounters, but just waiting to see what happens next, where the player or some other character will appear from and what athletic and acrobatic skill they will employ to carry them between these rooftops (or fail to do so), concentrates the attention. At the same time, the energy of the soundtrack with every footfall, safe landing or crashing failure, every whacking blow or pistol shot, every crunch of biscuit or gulp of liquid is amplified into the consciousness.

Si Rawlinson is another Player sometimes encountered, already bearing the scars of skirmish but usually helpful to 116. A team of colleagues play strange-headed humanoids, deliverymen, a fag-smoking, hair-in-huge-curlers cleaner, drum majorettes and others, all of them masked and unidentifiable (Janina Rajakangas, Kynam Moore, Megan Saunders, Louise Tanoto, Teerachai Yaun Thobumrung and Gervase Gregory).

As each level is complete, there is an episode of dance that usually features black rabbit-headed figures and gives the Player some respite but increasingly these intermissions include elements like the hanging body of a majorette or a fight between 116 and the earlier runner.

As levels escalate, the action and soundtrack become more violent. It only lasts about an hour but, though it rings a number of changes in its action, it is repetitious, though at the point where attention was at risk of flagging, a section of rapid parkour around the whole arena is injected.

To be honest, the show is somewhat of a let down after the way it has been promoted. The promo image and an online trailer made one anticipate a parkour fest around the London skyline to be viewed from the roof of a multi-story car park.

Seeing a clip of the erection of the set for its first performances in Bristol made it clear that would not be the case and lowered expectations, or else it might have seemed very disappointing. The problem is, the game itself is boring. Thank goodness you weren’t actually playing it on a computer but could take pleasure in the performance skills. Does it have any real point?

You could see it as a metaphor for the selfish competitiveness of modern life. Player 116 is certainly one of Thatcher’s children; he accepts help but rarely gives it. At level one he learns to dodge difficulties and responsibilities. At level two he learns to ignore anything that questions or undermines his confidence. By level three he’s found increased status which puts him beyond challenge from lower orders and survival is increasingly about getting as many yellow ducks or golden bucks as possible.

Player 116 now makes much freer use of violence, armed first with a hand gun and then a long distance ray gun until by the 8th level he is pushing later runners directly to their deaths. Is that where we are at? Or you could see it as just a re-enactment of another pointless computer game, though even that could be read as comment on what the popularity of such isolated activities says about what is happening in our society.

But that is up to the spectator, there is no evidence that its creators intended to apply resources and performers’ skills for anything more than entertainment and as entertainment it needs raising a notch or three to merit that investment.

But LIFT is about experiment and offering opportunity and The Roof is certainly something different.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

Are you sure?