Finding your way to the Almeida Theatre down its alley in King's Cross is a theatrical experience in itself – not of the pleasantest kind. The beguiling grass-covered exterior is only a temporary relief, as inside lurks an urban space of authentic grittiness, its derelict-bus-garage ambience enlivened by a bar and some decidedly temporary toilets. What better setting, then, for Heiner Goebbels' latest Sound City project – a collaboration between LIFT and Almeida Opera, snappily entitled No Arrival, No Parking, Navigation II? "A kind of staged concert", it celebrated the cultural "non-definability" and "sense of restless urban movement" of contemporary London (well, that's what the programme said), using 21 young London-based musicians from contrasting traditions.
The performance space was pretty amazing, if surprisingly grimy – a huge stage of kabuki proportions, littered with technology – mixing desks, lights, electronic gadgetry and other assorted hardware, with impressive, bleak, Edward Hopper-like vistas enhanced by dramatic lighting. Part of the urban restlessness apparently consisted of starting 20 minutes late, but things finally got going with fragmentary radio bursts and dour DJs mooching their way into action, and eventually widely spaced groups of players began a curious stream-of-consciousness "happening" that lasted about an hour in total.
It was all loosely based on a poem, Landscape with Argonauts, by Heiner Muller (with some assistance from a Mr Shakespeare), and the main source of coherence was the extremely dead-pan reading of the text by various musicians not otherwise engaged at the time. Lots happened – outbursts of samba drumming mixed with oriental sounding melodies, a celtic harp and electronic spirallings; haunting blues trumpet and sax merged into jazz funk, and a dynamic swivel-chair ballet followed some very curious goings-on in an upstairs office involving violent electronic shrieks and hisses, and a remote-controlled spotlight performing its own grotesque little choreographic solo like the squat, little robot from Star Wars.
At one point the performers all congregated in a corner in some cinema seating, watching rather poetic projections on a back wall and throwing what looked like orange peel at one another, but on the whole they all worked very hard, and clearly a lot of youthful talent was present. To what end, is another question. It was all very strange, and it was all very eclectic. But above all, it was all very episodic – every time something interesting started happening, it stopped. There were undoubted moments of visual interest, moments of musical interest and moments of theatrical interest, but the total effect was puzzling and pretentious. Perhaps the after-show discussion made all clear? Or perhaps not.
Returning to the real urban squalor outside, the 24-hour street theatre of King's Cross made the evening's event pale into insignificance – here was a non-stop performance, unrehearsed, featuring genuine human misery; "urban restlessness" that no one could possibly romanticise, and with no possibility of a nice neat ending, let alone an after-show discussion.
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