This haunted cabaret: ‘Drone’ by Harry Josephine Giles

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‘This Is Tomorrow’, British Pop artist Richard Hamilton’s paradigm-shifting 1956 exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, featured a painting based on the famous poster for ‘Forbidden Planet’. in which Robbie the Robot bears aloft the recumbent form of an unconscious blonde.

I mention this because this image [robot holding human] was reversed at the start of Harry Josephine Giles’ fifty minute-long spoken-word/theatre/live jam, ‘Drone’ when Harry Josephine – whose silver gown recalled Fay Wray’s “satin draped frame” as eulogised in the Rocky Horror Picture Show – cradled the inert, robotic form of a small drone which had up ’til then been busily buzzing about the theatre.

The contrast between the technicolour ‘then’ of Forbidden Planet, as filtered through the excitable irony of Hamilton’s ‘Pop’ lens, and the greyscale ‘now’ of ‘Drone’ is telling. ‘Drone’ is about many things and one of them is the way in which our present day is haunted by the promised, potential future[s] of brighter more hopeful pasts – both collective [ours] and individual [the drone’s].

It’s a show about paths not taken, the places technology has brought us to and the [human] cost of getting here. We don’t have flying cars or elegant, chromium needle spaceships. Our robot buddies aren’t benign companions à la Robbie – they are weapons of destruction, surveillance and Burroughsian C/control, servants of our worst instincts not our best selves.

‘Drone’ is also about living in this modern techno-theocracy. It seeks to provide an answer, or a series of possible/probable answers, to one of [if not the] most important question[s] facing any artist, anywhere right now – “What is it like to be young in the world today?”

‘Drone’ is credited to three people – Harry Josephine (words/performance), Neil Simpson (sound) and Jamie Wardrop (digital video). All three have done excellent work but, for me, it was the performance and the sound that made the impact – for the simple reason that it’s hard to focus on back projections when there’s a performer as mesmerising as Harry Josephine in front of them. 

Harry Josephine brought a physical element to their performance of ‘Drone’ which was fascinating to watch. Spoken word theatre (at least, the productions I’ve seen) doesn’t often centre or focus on physical performance/movement. Space can be a limiting factor but even in the relatively confined Changing House studio at the Tron, Harry Josephine made their body an explicit and integral part of the[ir] show. Sometimes with small gestures – the flexing of a hand, the smoothing or adjusting of the fabric of their dress – sometimes with larger movements – the sequence which had me wondering if they were about to climb inside a filing cabinet was a marvel of controlled, expressive movement as narrative.

The fluidity and eloquence of Harry Josephine’s physical performance was off-set, emphasised and enhanced by the relative ‘flatness’ of their declamatory style. ‘Drone’ was delivered in a voice reminiscent of Joel Grey, in his role as MC in ‘Cabaret’.

There was a Weimar ‘feel’ to parts of the show (emphasised in the blurb for the show, which refers to ‘Drone’s three performers as a “live cabaret band”) but this wasn’t a re-enactment of tired, worn-out tropes from a bygone age (no white-face, no Thonet chair). As with the potential techno-future[s] pointed to by its central theme and sci-fi soundtrack, ’Drone’ is haunted by the performative ghosts of a ‘Weimar-that-never-was/will be’.

This effect is emphasised and intensified by some calculated Brechtian ironic distancing, words projected like auditory shadow puppet theatre creating distorted impressions on the audience’s ears. Some of this was achieved through the considered use of sound effects – more often it was the contrast between what was being said and how it was delivered. 

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Which brings me to the words themselves. The text of ‘Drone’ comprises 30 individual poems (available to buy in a Vagabond Voices ‘Triptych’ edition entitled, ‘Our Real Red Selves’, along with poems by Marion McCready and JL Williams). The blurb for the show describes it as a ‘live jam’ that is ‘mixed new every night’ – but the night I was there, the poems seemed to be delivered in the order they appear in the book.

The scope exists for shuffling and re-sequencing because, while some of the poems are identifiably located-in-place (either “Back home” in the United States or in England) they are not located-in-time. ‘Drone’ [the text] does not follow any obvious chronology, there is no evident reason why poems that appear earlier in the sequence appear before later poems.

Poem follows poem according to the [il]logic of a Twitter timeline, a series of events that take place in a virtual space that feels simultaneously organised and curated but also vulnerable to trespass, betrayal and attack. 

Insofar as things don’t entirely make sense, this all makes perfect sense. According to cultural sociologist Dr Sara James, modern consumer living has become a series of tiny, repetitious, precarious narratives of instant gratification, without the over-arching narratives that would make our lives meaningful.

‘Drone’ reflects this sense of dis-continuity and unease with its shuffling of feelings and images in ways which are entirely and appropriately expressive of the kind of anxious, hyper-connected but experientially random sequencing of texts, pictures, opinions, arguments and emotions which is increasingly becoming peoples’ normative experience of the world today.

There is a substantial [and ever-increasing] body of literature which evidences the ways in which the modern, neo-liberal life-experience is becoming increasingly hurtful and damaging to all but the privileged few. For example, Mark Fisher wrote penetratingly about “the phenomenology of modern digital life, its peculiar affects of connected loneliness and distracted boredom and their impact on mental health.

The various references to mental ill-health in’Drone’ (e.g. therapy, medication and night terrors) follow this line of enquiry sensitively and intelligently. While Fisher wrote about popular culture only serving “an essential ideological function as the background noise [of] capitalist realism” – ‘Drone’ does the opposite by foregrounding the harm done by what the poster for the show describes as “systems of astonishing destruction”. There are also instances of genuine, unforced heartbreak such as the moment when the drone reveals her answer to the question, “What did you want to be, when you grew up?” [A teacher].

‘Drone’ stands as an indictment of our technocratic world, in which the only certainty is uncertainty, a world which previous generations have built by [mostly] demolishing the infrastructure of collectivism and social support and which the current generation is having to navigate with maps that are being constantly and contradictorily re-drawn.

It is an indictment of everyone/everything – there being that extent to which we are all, through our over-consumption, our active participation in hierarchies of oppression, and our destruction of the environment – drones operated by and operating as part of this system. And yet, at the same time, it offers solidarity to all [willing and unwilling] victims of today’s inescapable, mass-participational, rituals of self-harm.

All of which, no doubt, makes it sound as though ‘Drone’ is a difficult, rather grim experience. Not so. There are laughs – proper ones – and moments of levity. Also – and despite all I’ve said here about the text avoiding an obvious narrative progression – there is a real emotional pay-off as the show builds, plateaus, builds, plateaus and builds again towards a rewarding final, sequence with a genuinely heartwarming conclusion.

There is hope, it seems, for the drone and for all of us. Even if feeling better is a “chemical mystery”, even if feeling better is “temporary”, even if feeling better means, “avoiding the still open sore” – we end the show feeling better. And, for now, that has to be enough. 

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