Gob Squad’s Western Society begins with nudity and an epic countdown on a screen at the back of the stage: a prologue about the history of civilisation from cave-man to Rude Tube, featuring Chanel and Louis Vuitton. We’re voyeurs in this Bacchanalian spectacle of luxurious kitsch, a production line of savage commodities.
If we enjoyed the kind of awkwardly dated, pleasingly perverse parade of capitalism, we soon find out that’s not what we’re here to think about. Western Society is a portrait, but really, all we are offered is the frame itself. Then we’re invited in.
Once the chronology is out of the way, we’re introduced to one of the least popular You Tube videos out there; it features a family at a party, in a living room with a pleather sofa, a karaoke machine, a lady eating cake, a dancing grandma and a bored teen on her phone. There are more characters and we’ll get to see them in action throughout the show. This will also be the place when one of the performers imagines an encounter with his daughter’s future, or a conversation with a distant parent. We’re here for a re-enactment of a scene of contemporary domesticity; we’re here to think about the living room as an important performance site of our western society. This is the space where a man pretending to play karaoke to a camera becomes a performer playing karaoke to us (and for us); where audience members re-enact the minute gestures of strangers, and are rewarded with champagne and cake whilst we watch this strange staged feast.
Gob Squad are the German-English darlings of postdramatic theatre who have been making work since 1994, between Nottingham and Berlin. Their work is recognisably so because of the manner in which it engages with particular performative mechanisms that are both enacting and staging; they operate away from the dramatic and have a long-love for pop and mixed-media. They love frames and actions and consider the live through an on-going investigation of its relationship to the digital. In Western Society, mobile phones, cameras, projection screens, microphones and cables are as present on stage as the performers.
If you’ve seen Gob Squad before, this might all seem somewhat formulaic; inauthentic re-enactments, playful manipulation, performers standing in as characters standing in as ordinary people. Then there’s of course, the aesthetic – all bling and gold, shiny trousers and wigs, moving screens and mobile phones. So far, so Gob Squad. On the whole, Western Society is strikingly historical for its use of pastiche, and yet gently satirical and confrontational in its questioning of Westernisation and the false boundaries of domesticity.
There’s less bite than in previous Gob Squad productions, partly because this appears to be much treaded territory: You Tube, performance of the every-day, politics that emerge through performers quizzing each other and the characters they’re attempting to enact. But I think that’s also Western Society’s clever deception; it works with mechanisms and themes that seem so familiar, but rehabilitates the satire as a form through which to interrogate our own comfortable criticality with some of these issues.
There’s participation too, presented as a secondary layer of re-enactment in which seven audience members are invited to come onstage and sit-in for characters in the You Tube video. We’ve already watched Gob Squad in this re-enactment, taking full advantage of the lack of dialogue in the video to juxtapose a series of processes of interrogation onto seemingly banal engagements and gestures (eating cake, tapping a phone, dancing, singing karaoke). It’s in these moments we appear to get closer to the performers, to hear their fears, to joke about immigration and wrap ourselves in the emotionality of stories we’re not sure are true, but seem so intimate in these settings (a bit like Forced Entertainment’s Quizoola, but with cameras and context).
So when these new performers enter the set, we can’t help but forget all about the headphones they wear or the instructions they might be hearing, because watching them perform the video is as gripping as it’s strange and mundane. They’re fighting their own agency but the mechanisms set in place are so explicit and open about what’s going on, yet also accommodating of the minor errors and failures that come with getting strangers to eat mountains of cake, or pretending to turn off a karaoke machine, or smiling at a camera. We see them through a screen and it feels like watching an eerie re-representation packed with shifts in perspectives, winks and nostalgia.
In fact, Western Society is bathed in a beautiful nostalgia for theatrical thinking; nothing goes too deep, but what’s revealed on the surface is meaningful enough to comment not only on its own formation, but also on what happens after we’ve exhausted identity politics or the issue of reproduction and digitisation in a theatrical context. Gob Squad’s work has aged, but it has done so with insightful awareness.
Ultimately, Western Society goes beyond a mild poking at capitalism’s cruel appropriation of subjectivity, or its obsession with the spectacle of self-consumption; it thinks more deeply about collectivity, presence and the spaces that we inhabit. The living room is toyed with here in a kind of theatrical ethnography, but there is warmth and care in the ways in which this space is deconstructed; the isolation and intimacy that we might associate with this domestic space gets turned itself out, posing questions about our own boundaries and relationships to the everyday, about the role of temporary seclusion and domestic entertainment.