Tuesday, 25 October 2016

'A House in Asia' at Trafó

9/11 reframed as videogame - the shocking opening to 'A House in Asia' 

On a huge screen behind the Trafó stage, an airplane simulator plays. We fly over banal, almost-pixelated towns and fields. Then it crosses a wide river and angles up towards its iconic destination: twin slabs of white tower. We've seen the planes hitting the World Trade Centre a thousand times, but never in this first-person videogame format. As the whine of the engines grows deafening, we actually brace for impact.

What follows is the story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, played out using tiny models and toy figures. The 'performers' are video camera operators, moving deftly around the 'set' to focus on a range of scenarios that are then broadcast on to the screen. Toy cowboys and 'indians' massacre each other, soldier/cowboys rehearse their attack on a compound, a drive-in with a lone jeep is lit by a small flashing red light. And the eponymous house, a model of Bin Laden's compound, unfolds to become a range of other locations, from the Oval Office to a 'Risk' board that explains the history of the the West's battles with the East. Later, it more literally becomes the hideout of the 'World's Number One Most Wanted'. Or is it?

"Reflections... I see reflections... They come and go... Who am I? Just a warrior. That's all."
'A House in Asia' is about reflections and echoes, multiplying to dazzle us. Our narrator is Matt Bisonette, the man who shot Bin Laden. On stage, he is embodied by a lone actor in a cowboy hat. The first reflection is the figure we see on the screen: a toy cowboy in a toy car, at the drive-in, watching a Western. "I've seen things you wouldn't believe. Attack tanks on fire off the shoreline of Kabul..." It's Roy Batty's final, tragic soliloquy from 'Blade Runner', the sci-fi poetry appropriated to lend reality to one man's unreal experience. 

This is the genius of theatre company Agrupácion Senor Serrano. They sample familiar pop culture - 'cowboys and indians', 'Moby Dick', the Marx Brothers, even Take That - and use these disparate elements to tell a tale that still defies belief: the most powerful country in the world seemingly at war with one man.

Human performers pose like their plastic miniature counterparts, blown-up to enormity on the screen. This is the simplest level of reflection. The company's narrative is far more ambitious. At one point, toy figure/actors playing Navy SEALs discuss their eagerness for the strike on bin Laden's compound to begin. Talk to turns to who would play them in a movie of their impending mission. Abruptly, the model backdrop is pulled away to reveal a film set (including a tiny Kathryn Bigelow toy), with the same figures now playing Hollywood actors, reflecting on their role in 'Zero Dark Thirty'... who then muse on how their lot is better than theatre actors. Another toy set is whipped away and we see a miniature model of the theatre we ourselves are sat in, watching the figures who are playing us. The effect is moving, dazzlingly inventive, and also very funny.

There are not just reflections, but also echoes. Bushes Snr and Jnr - and later Obama - give speeches mimed by a sampled clip of Captain Ahab from 'Moby Dick'. He is labelled, in his screened social media exhortations, as The Sheriff. He is played on the stage by a crude plastic cowboy toy. Bin Laden tweets encouragement to his 'Apaches' (playing al-Qaeda): he is personified, in toy and movie-form, as 'Geronimo' (the genuine codename American forces used). It's a straightforward point, well-made: America falling back on their oldest mythology to make sense of contemporary events. But then the references (and doubles) multiply further to reveal a more complex portrayal. If Bush is Ahab, then Bin Laden is the Whale; so how co-dependent are they? Many have said Bush's presidency was completely unremarkable until the planes hit New York. From that point on, it became mythic. What would one be without the other? 

'The Sheriff' celebrates the assassination of his target: Geronimo AKA Osama bin Laden AKA The Whale, as echoes and reflections collide.
This theme is explored later when Bin Laden's assassination is heralded by a full-on, stetson-twitching line dancing routine... to Take That's "I Want You Back". This isn't an amusing digression, it's another double, another layer of meaning. 'Mark Owen' is the both the name of one member of the boy-band, and the pen-name used by Bisonnette to write his controversial memoir

Paradoxically, the amalgamation of these echoes offers us an insight into the 'reality' of the story. And this is the startling cumulative effect of what we see. Each movie reference or musical cue or incredibly detailed toy diorama does not distract us from the subject matter. Instead, it seems like this is the only way it can be told (as Bisonnette's narration repeatedly tells us): as layer upon layer upon layer of reflections.

'A House in Asia' is part of the CAFeBudapest festival.

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