Jakob Ahlbom’s sinisterly titled performance, presented as part of the London International Mime Festival, starts with two performers in a room. It’s a room the two of them appear to live in together and they are dressed almost identically: more than brothers, the scene calls to mind the idea of the double. Are they distinct creatures or figments of one another’s fevered imaginations?
Drawing on the opening scene from Buster Keaton and Edward F. Cline’s 1920 short film The Scarecrow, Ahlbom has upped the weirdness stakes. The room is almost identical to the one in the film with all its crazy Rube Goldberg contraptions (a reminder that the idea of the “smart home” is hardly a new one) and Reinier Schimmel and Yannick Greweldinger achieve the impressive feat of replicating Keaton and Joe Roberts’ perfect timing in catching every rope and pulley during the delightful meal scene (in one take, of course). While Roberts and Keaton were opposites in appearance (one short and skinny, the other tall and rotund), there’s an evident decision to make Schimmel and Greweldinger as similar as possible. What’s more, while some of the contraptions in The Scarecrow connect with the world outside the room (e.g. the bath going into the pig swill), there’s no sense of that here.
Everything is self-contained. It’s territory: lebensraum. Like in many of Pinter’s early plays, this soon makes it a battleground. Like in Keaton and Cline’s film, the source of conflict is female but this is where Lebensraum deviates from its source almost entirely, even though Keaton’s work remains an important reference point throughout. While the farmer’s daughter who the two men fight over in The Scarecrow is a flirty precocious character (a flapper who loves showing the men her dance moves), Silke Hundertmark’s character in Lebensraum has no life in her at all when she arrives at their door. She is a piece of hardware, an extension of their “smart” home. She’ll serve them and make their lives easier or so the theory goes. She’s a slow learner but when she starts to understand what’s going on, she unleashes chaos around her and there’s far less of a happy ever after in Ahlbom’s vision than in Keaton’s.
The piece leaves itself open to a variety of interpretations. It could be about gender politics; it could be about our overreliance on technology and our fears of artificial intelligence systems that start to think for themselves a little too much. Trying to make it about anything misses the point though. It follows a logic relentlessly and mathematically in the same way that a Genet play or a Keaton film does. It’s incredibly patterned. Every reaction has a reaction and the system works, like Goldberg’s gadgets, powered by that mechanical engine. It’s a way of looking at the world as something that is logical, something that makes sense like the house these two men live in.
There’s a joy in that, of course, but, at times, it can get predictable. For example, when the female performer arrives and plays low status (not even conscious apparently initially), there’s only one way that can possibly go. There’s no space for mess or for unpredictability. Whether this ordering of things brings you pleasure or not is such a subjective phenomenon and I suspect it depends as much on your mood as on you as an individual. Certainly, Ahlbom present a seamless vision of this perfectly ordered version of reality and can only be commended for that.