13 October 2017.
Waterside Theatre. Manchester.
A Sleepwalk Collective production with the participation of Theatre and Performance.
It’s autumn outside in Manchester but in an unnamed provincial town in Russia it is spring. Olga and Irina remember their father’s funeral a year before and yearn for the Moscow of their memories. As the two sisters’ words play out on a large screen and their thoughts flit back and forth across the years, a man in a mouse costume walks on stage and focuses our attention back on here and now – on the journey to the theatre, the anticipation, our arrival and to this very moment – in this show called ‘Khloé Kardashian’.
The script that we can read on-screen is Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’. We are told of three sisters trapped in a big house in the middle of nowhere. Their lives feel unfulfilled, almost unreal, but at least they know their lives will be celebrated and they will be remembered. Olga, Masha, Irina. Kim, Kourtney, Khloe. Prozorova. Kardashian. Three sisters. Two families. As well as the big screen a small television is wheeled out. It plays endless cyclical clips of a television chat show over which is superimposed the word ‘PARADISE’ – are we to draw a line between the Prozorova sisters’ dreams of the wonderful world of Moscow and the Kardashian sisters’ pursuit of celebrity and fame?
By now you’ll have sensed this is not a piece of theatre that is going to be easy to define or describe. At the end, several audience members bravely voice that they loved it but had no idea what it was about. I can identify with that feeling. Sleepwalk Collective’s ‘Domestica’ was one of the most exhilarating shows I’ve seen in recent years but even now I wouldn’t claim to hold any useful insight into its meaning. ‘Khloé Kardashian’ is similarly dense with ideas and layered with meaning.
On one level, this is a show about reality and illusion – it deconstructs theatre and performance. What is usually hidden from view is on display – just as it might be in reality television perhaps? The props table, laden with tantalising ephemera, is on stage. The one costume change takes place in front of us. Actors can only be heard if they stand behind two mic stands, there are no discreetly wired up mics, and their marks are clearly taped out on the floor. Even a script (if not the script), complete with stage set up and directions, is being shown continuously on the screen behind.
Back at the beginning, that man in a mouse costume (Frank MacDonald) swivels the focus from the stage on to us – our inner selves, our breathing. We are toyed with. He encourages us to relax, offering words of reassurance. He is joined by a woman in a red ball gown (Lily Rae Hewitt Jasilek) who is less welcoming. Have we come to wallow in other people’s lives? What are we hiding from? Are we seekers of diversion or sensation? If we are looking to feel part of something she has bad news for us – we are not part of this.
Our role as an audience is probed and prodded throughout. Later, we are asked to reflect on the irony that we may be looking in the wrong direction for thrills and spills. No real danger awaits on stage. We are safe in their hands the actors tell us, but what do we really know about the people we sit amongst? For several moments we become potential characters in a drama, a real life one. Is there a doctor in the house? A liar? A lover? Is anyone contagious?
We are teased but there are no subtle attempts to build up tension. Plot is of little value here, ‘twists’ are revealed to us in advance in an offhand manner – we know a gun will be fired in Act 3, who will read the final words, what revelations are to come. Climax and anticlimax are offered up equally. Conventional dramatic narrative is something taking place elsewhere.
Based on “the science bit” explained to us by a man dressed in ‘black tie’ (Sam Lowe), it’s possible we are getting a glimpse of a parallel universe. One where we would normally be watching a performance of ‘Three Sisters’ but we have unusually found ourselves here, somewhere else. The action on stage follows the form of Chekhov’s play in that its sections begin and end roughly at the same time as the play’s acts. Otherwise the performers exist in a world of their own making. Sometimes what happens on stage reaches out to gently touch, reflect or draw additional meaning from the words on-screen. A priest glances up to catch Chebutykin’s words “to hell with the lot of them..”. A placard declaring “Everyone you love will one day die” is paraded before us as on-screen a Chekhov character weeps. Occasionally the other play feels more forcefully present. At the beginning of Act 3 as an alarm is being sounded in Russia for a fire, an overactive toaster fills the stage with smoke. Partway through the show the priest kindly offers us a catch up on the plot of ‘The Three Sisters’ – “there’s been a secret affair, a declaration of love and a house on fire”…
We are definitely somewhere else though. Here the actors speak portentously, without emotion, and their expressions are blank. One performer is silent for most of the show. Only Sam is mentioned by name. They are six characters in search of a play. You could perhaps pair up a racing driver and a car mechanic (if that’s who they are). The man in the bow tie and cummerbund and the woman in the red dress could have a back story together. But what of the priest and the mouse/man? All their characters, their relationships to each other are unknown or perhaps non-existent. Occasionally we get glimpses of something like personality – Paul Burke’s cocky cracker-crunching mechanic or the apparent distress of someone about to be shot.
A spotlight falls on the authenticity of the theatrical experience. Two performers demonstrate the art of naturalistic acting. As they move through techniques to channel their ‘inner action’ we get nothing from them as an audience. Their genuinely felt inner experiences fail to translate. The man in a mouse costume dreams of accessing something purely authentic – the truest true, the realest real, the bluest blue… He promises us a genuinely ordinary moment. And yet, as Kate Smith makes toast in pursuit of that holy grail, it is slow and unmemorable. Ironically it is the carefully positioned beams of red light above the toaster, the throbbing music and the billowing haze that connect with us. The trickery of theatre makes that ordinary moment extraordinary.
There are flashes of humour – the diminutive priest looking up at the mic towering above his hat, the divergence between the emotions the characters express and their blank faces, and an actor limbering up dramatically for his death scene.
Theatrical conventions are subverted. The end of each act is signalled by the woman in the red dress quietly and slowly clapping. Someone takes a bow in slow motion before the play has even finished. There is a genuine sense that we have slipped into an alternative world. Sleepwalk Collective’s sound design (with the assistance of Christopher Brett Bailey) is incredibly rich – it builds moodily throughout each act. The music is mournful, grand and there is a sense of danger. Sirens and alarms can be heard beneath the soundscape and at times they seem to loop ominously around you. The lighting is equally atmospheric, the simple black box setting is lost beneath a hazy “darkness around the light” that seems to grow more oppressive as time moves on.
Generously we are almost given explicit permission, as an audience, to see or imagine our own meaning within it all. A speech by Tristan Chadwick’s priest goes through the process of how that might be happening – like listening for voices in the static between radio stations.
Near the end the focus shifts back to the three sisters – both pairs. We become voyeurs staring out from the darkness, watching their sadness. The pregnant racing driver (Kate Smith) calls on “‘sisters” to shed their burden of sadness, to “carry it like a corpse in to the woods and bury it” – a powerful, seeming universal appeal to women to break out from the stereotypically passive lives and tragic roles that theatrical convention and contemporary society may seek to impose upon them.
While the production picks apart the relationship between performance and reality, it also asks us to reflect on the passing of time. It moves back and forward through it, plays fast and loose with it but also places value on subtle moments. As time run its course, the sisters in Russia ponder the uncertainties of life, and talk defiantly of endurance and hope. It’s autumn now in their small town just as it is in Manchester. Here a man is buried, a baby appears, someone takes a bow and life goes on.
‘Khloé Kardashian’ is beautifully unsettling, chilly and hypnotic – Lynchian in its ability to create something of this world and yet not. The performances are uniformly excellent and the direction and design elevate it to another unearthly dimension.
Genuinely haunting, its words and visual compositions linger. The screen brings a non-existent [CURTAIN] down and the television chat show is turned off, the darkness envelops us and there is a continuing gently insistent clap like a clock ticking, like a heartbeat – like the end of a day.
Cast – Paul Burke, Tristan Chadwick, Lily Rae Hewitt Jasilek, Sam Lowe, Frank MacDonald & Kate Smith.