BY Tim Etchells in Reviews | 06 JAN 95
Featured in
Issue 20

Index Theatre

BY Tim Etchells in Reviews | 06 JAN 95

Based in Manchester, Index Theatre make work flavoured by the sweet and sour delicacies of a distinctly regional life and history. Such reflections on regionality have always been conceived with a clear sense of the larger myths and forces currently at work in the UK landscape. In recent years the group have forsaken their intense and rather baffling deconstructions of theatre texts, shifting to a form that's brighter and looser. Since last year's '66 to '99, the company have also, like others working in new theatre, diversified their practice towards installation and gallery performance. The changes suit them.

In Train Up a Child in the Way He Should Go and The Alphabet of Dogs (both works 1994), ideas around voyeurism, anthropomorphism and childhood are very much in the air. The two works are connected by a desire to deal with the exercise of power in the everyday structures of cultural learning. Both pieces play on the idea of humans watching animals (bears in the zoo, dogs in the street) and its ironic reversal - the notion of animals as uncomprehending spectators (or even inheritors) of human progress and culture, or lack of it. In each piece one's presence as a viewer is a significant part of the work, and becomes, by implication, performative.

Previously, Index always seemed unwilling or unable to work with theatres' codes to satisfy that medium's problematically social audience. Narrative or rhythmical architecture - the creation of a 'satisfying shape' to be experienced by a body of watchers over time - was always a site of difficulty and friction. However, in the gallery context of single viewers their work positively thrives - one's experience remains delicate and avowedly individual even as it is angled towards imagining the social. Viewers of these installations, then, experience narrative not as total (theatrical) architecture but as a series of personal eddies and ripples.

In The Alphabet of Dogs, meaning is repeatedly and enjoyably deferred by a shifting set, both actual and intellectual. Moving from a white-walled room in which a monitor shows a pack of dogs chasing madly in a large dilapidated warehouse, one comes eventually to an internal window looking down on the warehouse itself, now almost deserted. In fact, peering into the cavernous space below, one sees only a kitsch plaster dog which sits staring at a huge screen showing home movie footage of the May Day parade in a Yorkshire town during the 50s.

As a spectator, one is very much aware of the parallels involved in this scene - humans watching a dog, the dog watching videotape of humans. The content of the tape adds a further irony, since the celebrations it shows consist mainly of badly-costumed children enacting the great events of British History. So a dog stares blankly at some nostalgic document, at history rendered as naive pageant, all in a now deserted industrial building that once housed useful work, and all in a country, which, according to Alphabet's most obvious pun, has literally gone to the dogs.

Train Up a Child in the Way He Should Go also plays games with the doubled positions of watcher and watched. In this more engaging piece, three performers dressed from head to foot in gaudy pantomime-bear costumes live out the long hours of gallery opening time in a brutal steel cage. Spectators to this scene were effectively placed in fiction, as visitors to a perverse zoo - in much the same way as Stephen Taylor Woodrow's Going Bye Byes placed one at the hospital bedside. However, as soon as one found a role in Train Up a Child..., the piece worked to destabilise it. In particular the performers dressed as soppy-eyed bears hardly bothered to be bear-like at all; their boredom - sitting knees clasped, or hanging glumly from the bars of the ceiling, seemed more like that of a bunch of kids killing time at a bus stop than anything else.

Spiralling thus between human boredom and animal boredom, between the real and the fictional, Train Up a Child... also placed itself with skillful ambiguity at the meeting point between kitsch comedy and high melancholy. Reading from the biro scrawl which ran around the gallery walls - a stream of consciousness flit through Northern nostalgia, kids adventure and public toilet porn - I found this line: 'The sea is calm (rough); The ship is rolling; The wind is strong (light): are you a good (bad) sailor? ... Who could legislate these moments?'