Brighton Fringe 2021
Directed by Woman’s Move at the Rialto. Till June 15th though touring. Contact Rialto and producers for details.
It’s back. After its triumphal multiple award-winning progress in 2019 (not least the highest praise from Nicholas Collett of FringeReview at the Edinburgh Fringe) Swiss collective Woman’s Move return to the Rialto with The Sensemaker. It’s been performed over fifty times in several different languages, and different languages too is what we get here, confined to menus.
It’s everything in nothingness, a show slicing glitch-capitalism and totalitarianism with sexploitation; stripping people bare enough to be objects and automatons at once. And all those phone-queuings you’ve ever or will ever make.
There’s an old-fashioned telephone, a chair, a young woman, actor Elsa Couvreur. She’s ordered to stand uncomfortably in the centre of the room. If she strays for comfort she’s ordered back again. At first she’s waiting in a queuing system with different languages options – then there’s a kind of set: of songs Couvreur mimes perfectly, to the Beethoven Ode to Joy, Handel’s Messiah Allelujah, a set of variations on harpsichord also by Handel, and Swiss pop I can’t identify.
Then in English (each country will hear it in their own language) Couvreur’s told to obey increasingly bizarre functions, turning on quarters, getting down on all fours, stooping, gyrating – at one point it’s suggested the young woman is auditioning for sex or adult films. The most intrusive questions get asked. But it’s more universal. Finally she’s commanded to perform absurd gestures; each accompanied by a jolted ‘please-thankyou’ as if compliance isn’t in question.
There’s resets as the disembodied voice jumps back and the applicant’s out of the loop. The recorded voice is cleverly calibrated so you know the same digital word ‘four’ is being repeated robotically. This is punishing people for computerised mistakes, pre-echoing a digital dystopic world of commands that glitch out yet allow no recall.
To vary this too there’s moments of freedom. A glitch throws multiple commands Couvreur has no time to follow sequentially, but when the famous Pointer Sisters ‘I’m so excited’ arrives with its ‘I’m losing control and I think I like it’ in fact Couvreur performs all these to the music in rapid sequence, a comi-tragic moment of bizarre freedom repeating multiple moves lending a spurt of exhilaration. There’s a profound paradox, musical disinhibition and deep conditioning. And there’s a sense of people being ordered to dance on film in black and white. We’ve seen them. Woman’s Move know we have. Then there’s a blackout, as if somehow the character’s having too much fun.
Nudity’s heralded so there’s no spoiler in exploring what it means when Couvreur’s ordered to strip. What the character manages to do here beyond the robotic narrative she’s forced into, is slide out of obedience into brief vulnerable selfhood: stripping partly, ordered to fully, covering herself, ordered to stand in merciless exposure. And repeat earlier moves.
In itself it’s a purgatory of waiting or hell, a groundhogging rewind as the fulfilment of meaningless repetitive work-tasks; themselves figured as a dry-run for eternity. Who needs more torments? And what does exiting the way Couvreur does signify?
The most uncomfortable moment though is when Couvreur is allowed to put her clothes back on. Again that sliding moment of vulnerability, the private self no public should see: the way we adjust underwear to our naked bodies. It doesn’t say ‘look at me’ but ‘look at you’.
Couvreur’s performance is phenomenal in itself: both physically balletic (she looks to be a trained ballet dancer) and mine-perfect, with miniscule expressions occasionally allowed to flitter across her face, like a revelation of a god in the machine. Her eyes, ever alert for trouble, crinkle just once with humour, often with puzzlement, always on guard.
How row back from this, this mix of phone-queue for purchase repurposed as exploitative job application and techno-serfdom – or even techno-murder? Is Couvreur’s character traumatised, anonymised and robotically obedient, even liminally subversive? There’s a gesture suggesting residual life. But the metaphor holds: terminally exploitative practices, totalitarianism, being lined up naked with all its attendant horrors.
But it’s these forces appearing in their hideous nakedness that also raises this show to the highest level. There’s nominally a difference between the naked and the nude, but here it’s probed, questioned and collapsed. The question really should be, what’s really appeared naked to us? Not Couvreur perhaps. An astonishing, disturbing shapeshifting sliver of genius.