Wimbledon College of Art,9 September 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

In ÁTMAN (Aht-muhn), Sarah McLaughlin (alias Theatretank) demonstrates that in headphone-assisted performance, the content need not always be tailored to the form. Billed as “a performance in motion,” the production sends participants on a walk around the residential streets and footpaths of Merton, accompanied by an abridged audio-only version of Peter Handke’s Self-Accusation.

Handke’s text is an uninterrupted stream of words – mostly statements beginning with “I” – and so despite having been conceived for the highly visual medium of the stage, it doesn’t feel like it loses anything by being poured directly into the ear.

McLaughlin’s abridgement highlights passages concerned with movement and especially with walking, but that’s her only attempt at integrating the soundtrack with its setting. Unlike David Leddy’s Susurrus , probably ÁTMAN’s closest cousin in terms of format, the specifics of the route are unimportant; ÁTMAN thrives not on intentional confluence but on arbitrary juxtaposition, lining up unrelated visual and aural phenomena side by side and allowing the participant’s mind to impose its own meaning, as if from a Rorschach blot.

What that meaning might be will vary from individual to individual. I experienced one epiphanous moment of alignment, cresting the stairs onto a railway bridge just as the music swelled and a frantic tumble of phrases climaxed in a moment of silence. Had I walked more quickly – had I trusted the little yellow arrows on the pavement instead of trusting the map on my flyer, and thus not lost whole minutes backtracking – that moment would not have happened. There was no dramatic intent behind it; McLaughlin couldn’t have known it would happen. Yet I couldn’t help but invest meaning in that moment.

ÁTMAN is more an experiment in free association than a piece of drama. Every participant experiences it differently according to their walking speed, attentiveness and thought processes, so as an experiment it succeeds. But because any meaning derived from it is self-generated and arbitrary, it can feel like a meandering and ultimately pointless piece of drama; like the circular walking route, after a pleasant diversion you end up back where you started. Whether to interpret (and review) it as an experiment or as drama is, like the production itself, largely up to the individual.

Written by Sarah McLaughlin after Peter Handke


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