Borders are fascinating, in part, because of the possibility of space in between. What could exist between two things? And what would it mean for identity, cultural or moral, to live there? This is the subject of Belgian theatre company Berlin’s latest project, a mix of media, technology and live action co-commissioned by Brighton Festival and receiving its UK premiere here.
A sense of being in no man’s land pervades as we are let loose in the production’s location, a massive derelict warehouse set back from a busy road. Netting hangs from the ceiling, presumably to catch debris, and smashed windows overlook a bare, uneven expanse of concrete that recedes into gloom as the occasional wing beat of a pigeon echoes around the rafters.
This inhospitable place contains seven macabre mechanical contraptions, which become more elaborate as you move further in. Half a car spins slowly, a foot hanging out of the boot; a fridge door swings open to reveal a body buried in frozen crepes; a metal pipe repeatedly thuds against a sofa cushion; a succession of plugged-in hairdryers dangle ever closer to basins full of goldfish.
This playful mix of black humour and ominous suggestiveness is the best part of the show. We eventually learn the significance of these installations, but their intricacy has its own lurid, immersive pull: the techno-fetish equivalent of the gruesome detail of tabloid reporting. Eyes stinging, we cluster around a container in which onions are mangled by a spinning blade, as if watching a peep show.
The narrative, inspired by true events, takes shape once we are seated. Via dramatised encounters and reminiscences from real-life lawyers and judges, displayed on moveable video screens, we are introduced to a woman and the man she paid to kill her adulterous husband. They have confessed to involvement in his death but their conflicting accounts of how it happened and their arrest in different countries have resulted in a trial like no other, conducted across a farmhouse table, one end of which is in France and the other in Belgium.
This fascinating set-up – where the country you are in depends on the side of the bed you wake up – is sketched in amusing detail through interviews with the farm’s inhabitants and officials on either side of the divide. Delivered with a chuckle, complaints about the relative inefficiency of French and Belgian planning departments turn the farm into a nexus for cultural tensions that have softened over time into a bureaucratic pissing contest. Because of French laws prohibiting extradition, it is also the only place in a pre-video conferencing age that wife and killer can be brought together.
What follows is film blended with performance, as two actors come before us to play the protagonists as they are questioned by lawyers on a bank of video screens about their version of events. Unfortunately, the effect is underwhelming, as static staging coupled with the predominance of digital surtitles (the dialogue is in French and Flemish) and pre-recorded footage engulfs the live performance, robbing it of immediacy. At times, it is as if we are watching the production from behind glass rather than sharing space with it.
This sensation of distance is intensified by a script that articulates its Kafkaesque themes with icy clarity. As the characters argue from opposite ends of the table about the blurred boundaries between truth and falsehood, love and hate and the co-opting of private misery for public consumption, we listen with interest but little emotional engagement.
Land’s End brims with great ideas. But as it retreats behind screens in its second half, it becomes less enjoyable; never quite living up to the dark promise of the twisted museum of death at the start or making the most of the space it is in. The connection between the mechanical installations and the murder is ingenious but serves to highlight the diminishing returns of the production’s awkward shift between theatrical modes. As it seeks to explore boundaries, the ones it struggles with most are its own.
The Brighton Festival runs from the 5th to the 27th May 2012.
First published by Exeunt magazine