Imagine a panic-stricken stream-of-consciousness calibrated into an auto-cue. Imagine looking into a fun-house mirror, with the way it takes what you know then stretches and bends it, giving yourself back to you like some distressing and fascinating gift. My own try-hard poetics aside, perhaps the closest fitting description for Karaoke is an hour-long headfuck, in the most literal sense – an experience of purely cerebral sensuality.
The performers (Iara Solano Arana and Sammy Metcalfe) wear jaunty little party hats. They tell us, unflinchingly, that we’re an audience – not only that, but that we look empty. Yet, even before they tell us we look empty, we know they’re going to tell us we look empty because their words are projected on the screen behind them – the same words they are reading from the screen in front of them. Obliged (or condemned) to perform until the lines stop appearing, the voices and bodies on stage are disowned and dislocated. The performers aren’t playing characters, but they also aren’t quite themselves, not simply because we can’t ever trust that what they say is what they really mean.
So Karaoke is, technically, a karaoke: a performance with microphones and music. The machine functions by projecting onto the screen a relentless text, spewing a duologue manic in tone and laconic in delivery. Embodied by Metcalfe or Arana alternately, the ‘voice’ in (or is it of?) the machine wants to talk about watching and wanting, death and dreaming, audiences and performers. The structure skeleton of a pop song – verse, bridge, chorus – is fleshed out with starkly poetic statements, touching on nightmares, neurosis, apocalypse and the internet, sometimes funny but more often mercilessly bleak.
At first Karaoke seems simple, almost unsatisfactorily so. By foregrounding the mechanisms and showing us the script, the work bares itself to such an extent that its bareness threatens a feeling of futility, the certainty that nothing can really ‘happen’ here. We watch the performers try and fail, play dead, smile, kiss – all the while, we think we’re a step ahead, or at least in step, because the words appear to performers and audience simultaneously. Yet, when the screen gives its commands, it doesn’t actually limit what happens on stage, but instead opens up an oddly enticing gap between expectation and act: potential meanings proliferate in a moment of endless possibility. It’s safe to say that the performers’ interpretations of their instructions are entirely, enjoyably unpredictable, so it’s easy to lose the thread. At such moments the words on screen, de-contextualised from any coherent whole, appear like dark threats, errant thoughts – like sudden unsettling captions for the two people we’re staring at.
As they tread a tightrope, or a tripwire, between reality and performance, Metcalfe and Solano soothe us with alienation before inflicting invasive mental intimacies. Though they’ve stripped away the usual power play, we’re still left vulnerable to face what we really are – in an audience, sharing as an audience this particular space and time with each other and them. But even then, that act of ‘sharing’, in Sleepwalk’s hands, is neither sentimental nor comforting: there’s an awkwardness, an exhaustion, even an uneasy eroticism to it. Knowing what the pair are going to say does not disarm them. “Imagine having sex with us”, they ask, as the text on screen doubles the demand and we laugh uneasily: “…you can do anything you want.”
It takes a concerted effort, certainly, to play this game – to recognise that there’s a game to play at all. Indeed, Karaoke often feels like an exercise, not for the performers but for the audience, and not in theatre-making but in theatre-watching. What Sleepwalk Collective ask of an audience is very little, and perhaps too little for some: to just be here, in a space perhaps now desecrated, since all sense of showmanship, stagecraft and secrecy has been meticulously erased. To be at ease with what is, after all, the unease of being here – whether ‘here’ means in our bodies, on the earth, or simply in the theatre itself, which, for Sleepwalk Collective, is the strangest place of all.
Karaoke played at Battersea Arts Centre. For more shows at the venue see the Battersea Arts Centre website.