Two days before the opening night at the ICA, I watched a rehearsal of The Oracle (Because We're Here), 'They'll never make it' I thought. The company was still struggling with the pipe sets, still making up new movements. The director was screaming that they'd better get moving because he was hyperventilating and would probably faint on stage. Another performer was complaining. "For fuck's sake, why do you have to make all that noise?' All of them were nursing cuts from climbing in and out of metal tubing, and the plastic pipe constructions kept falling apart. What had sounded like an intriguing idea - the creation of a modern Oracle, a place where travellers had originally met, ideas were exchanged and transformed into actions - seemed to fall apart in the reality of the rehearsal.
However, as the stage lights brightened in the theatre, the performance came together with magical precision. Everything worked on cue: movement, music, lights, dry ice. The polished metal tubes shot geometric light patterns into the audience. The plastic pipes snapped smoothly together like good plumbing. No-one (on stage) swooned. An integral part of The Oracle involves actots instructing each other by speaking through plastic tubes, their commands and tones mutated by the continuously changing length of pipe. What short-circuited in rehearsal was miraculously communicated on stage.
In its current manifestation, Station House Opera is a group of artists, actors, sound and light technicians and a trapeze artist/sculptor. The five performers combine acting, pedestrian movement, and racing round the stage, with the construction of organic shapes from pieces of metal and plastic tubing which emit music, lights and smoke. The trapeze artist is lowered and raised from the ceiling in a harness that looks like a parachutist's or an electric chair in a tin can. The company have always used unusual props - bricks, cranes, towers, wardrobes - that are explored, constructed and deconstructed in both predicatable and bizarre ways, the objects transformed by their roles into mutable sculptures, performers rather than materials. The result is surreal and comical, a set that is constantly changing from science fiction to Fritz Lang-industrial to Sesame Street.
But when the performance ended, I was left wondering what the conclusion was, or if indeed it was the conclusion and not the intermission. What julian Maynard Smith, the director, had explained to me: that their work was not meant to be read as narrative, that the performers are not acting as anything other than themselves, that the viewer was meant to respond as one would to a sculpture or painting that moved, was accurate, but became too tedious for my post-MTV attention span. The humans on stage were as scrubbed of emotion as the pipes were polished - beautiful, architectural and comical in the beginning, and robotic and difficult to watch after some time. Eventually all the running around the stage, the non-stop building and rebuilding was distracting from the movement of the piece.
What The Oracle does communicate is the way in which people follow instructions to the point of idiocy. The way commands disintegrate into a game of Chinese Whispers. The piece ends with each of the performers sitting in an unbroken circle like the worm ouroborous, each one simultaneously speaking into a plastic pipe attached to their neighbour's ear. The buzz and hum of their barely audible voices grows louder and less comprehensible until the lights go down. One assumes that they're simply repeating what they've heard without reacting to it.
Although The Oracle seems to ask political questions about conformity, it avoids a real confrontation with any issue by not straying from the metaphorical. While illustrating sheep-like behaviour, they never show the struggles of the voluntary or involuntary iconoclast. None of the cast members break any moulds, all British and all variations of white, and on stage they are the obedient robots they are told to be.