Requardt & Rosenberg: Motor Show — Listening in on the lives of others

Posted: May 18th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Requardt & Rosenberg: Motor Show — Listening in on the lives of others

Motor Show, co-directed by Frauke Requardt and David Rosenberg, at the Brighton Festival, May 12. 

There is something vaguely perverse about sitting outside for an hour near the seafront on a cold, windy night listening in through our headphones on the conversations of young couples out for an adventurous night in their parked cars. What business is it of ours, all 250 of us, huddled together in our parkas, coats, wooly hats and assorted rugs and cushions on this derelict building site at Black Rock participating in a version of The Lives of Others for a cast of beaten-up cars, a couple of caravans and ten dancers with assorted headdresses?

Frauke Requardt and David Rosenberg, co-directors of Motor Show, first joined forces to create Electric Hotel in 2010, which pioneered their use of binaural sound technology to juxtapose a distant image with an intimate sound score. It also branded their artistic taste as slightly twisted and surreal with dark overtones. Motor Show is the follow up, with a week’s run at this year’s Brighton Festival before transferring to derelict building sites at the festivals of Norwich, Greenwich+Docklands and Stockton (see Links page for details). One of the themes of Requardt and Rosenberg’s collaborative work is to transfer the audience from the traditional auditorium to a disused or unfamiliar setting of the urban environment (the performances are presented by Without Walls). Black Rock, with its backdrop of the Brighton Marina car park, is one such area. The disadvantage of such spaces is that they can be numbingly cold.

Box office is also pretty rudimentary: a rusty iron gate with a padlock behind which stands a guy with a fistful of pre-booked tickets. If you want to know how to dress for the event, take a tip from the box office staff. You can also buy a ticket on the night if you thrust a £10 note through the grill ‒ if there are any tickets left. This is, ironically, a hot event. If you come by car, there is a parking lot next to the site, and if you come by bike, you can leave it just inside the entrance, and there’s no need to lock it. There are no programs, no drinks, no ice creams and no crisps; just the obligatory pair of earphones. Only the hardiest of arctic spectators would want to check in their coats, but it’s a moot point as there are no facilities. The construction site toilets are stacked against one of the dilapidated barriers that form the enclosure of this festival site. The only good thing is that the sightlines are a lot better in this banked seating than at the Dome and you don’t have to turn off your mobile phone because nobody can hear it anyway. In the absence of printed programs, there could have been a giant billboard with the information, just so the dancers and production staff can be officially acknowledged by name. The stage is concrete, which is why the dancers don’t jump very much, but it’s great for the cars. This is theatre in the raw for a ferociously clad audience. Or it might be just a creative excuse for catching a cold.

There is an amusing conceit at the beginning of the binaural soundscape: we hear the expectant chattering of a warm and cosy theatre crowd before the lights go down, as at the beginning of a BBC 3 live concert broadcast. There is no chattering in this audience apart from our teeth.

The concept of listening in to intimate conversations in a parked car a hundred yards away is closely associated with espionage, except that in Motor Show there isn’t any dialogue to listen to. Is there an aural equivalent to voyeurism? The promotional material talks of a young couple in a car arguing and planning a world for each other, but this is a stretch too far for the imagination. All we hear is the ambient sound inside the car: engine, ignition switch, handbrake, the opening and closing of a door, a bottle opening, a foamy drink being poured and swallowed, giggling, music playing. The sound quality is such that we are inside the car, but we are ‒ literally and metaphorically ‒ left out in the cold when it comes to following any thread of conversation that might suggest what is happening.

Nor is it easy to extract information from the action, but then again, surrealism is not given to easy interpretation. A prologue sung by a woman in a feathered headdress (headdresses have a certain significance in Requardt and Rosenberg’s work) suggests the work’s dark undertone: “My lightning flashes across the sky; you’re only young but you’re gonna die.” We hear the plastic coat squeaking as the woman moves. Way over in the background a figure is dancing up a storm in the dust, a tiny figure on a huge stage. I have never seen such a small figure on such a vast stage attract so much attention. “Satan’s gonna get you.” The site’s crazed telephone booth buzzes with the sound of an industrial-size electrical short. The light goes out. “Hells bells, hells bells.”

We hear a metal gate opening and a car starts up. It’s real, and approaches us from behind the corrugated fence that forms a backdrop and comes to a halt. We see a man in the driver’s seat and a girl next to him, like figures in a fish tank. He cracks open a bottle and pours a drink, winds down the window and places the bottle on the roof. Good place to keep it cool on a night like this. Getting comfortable, the CD player comes to life. Another car approaches and stops as if lining up at a drive-in cinema. This second couple repeats the same bottle-opening-drinking-CD sequence. The girls in the two cars get out and dance against the side of their respective cars. A third car drives up and the entire sequence is repeated. The three girls in bare legs and summer frocks must be cold and dying to get back into their cars, which they do. A bottle falls off one car roof and breaks. The first two cars reverse to behind the corrugated fence, but the couple in the third car is busy snogging by the sounds of it. Later on there is some interesting thematic choreography for these drivers and passengers, entering and exiting the car windows with acrobatic abandon, but for the most part the cars (there are as many cars as there are dancers) outperform the dancers.

While the three couples in cars form a recurrent theme in Motor Show, the linear scenario seems to begin with a man in a stretch Volvo enticing a schoolgirl into the back seat. She accepts, but eventually gets away, survives being blown up in the boot of an abandoned car and is finally redeemed. We see her at the end through the window of a big caravan that only she can unlock, dancing contentedly. The Volvo man, after staggering around in a state of mental and physical disintegration, endures a final self-inflicted punishment in his underwear groveling on the cold, hard ground. There is also a parallel universe of a gang of violent car bashers with rubber truncheons driving a battered Jaguar and an eccentric shaman who lives in a small but transformative caravan that he pulls himself on to the site.

I am glad I went. Requardt and Rosenberg clearly have an impressive level of imagination to work on this kind of epic scale, marshaling a complex array of resources. Comparing the two projects, Electric Hotel had a unity of set and concept that was essentially contained and complete, whereas the unity of Motor Show is more dispersed, perhaps too much. It is a work of exploration rather than of discovery; the promise is still there; the courage and imagination are still there, but the theatrical experience is frustratingly incomplete. With these two works under their belt, who knows what Requardt and Rosenberg will come up with next, but whatever it is will be worth watching – as long as there is an item in the production budget for heated seats.