Actors / Filmmakers / The Sunday Times

Gob Squad: Strangers in Slave Island

There are strangers in Slave Island tonight and they are, well, acting strange. As we walk toward Rio Cinema, we see a woman running the opposite way. She appears to be talking furiously to herself until you see a camera, perched on a contraption supported by a band around her waist. She is past us and down the street in a blink of an eye. A few feet away is another foreigner perched on the pavement; dressed in sequins, she is discussing romantic comedies with a young local. A third man rushes into a kade, he has what looks like a picture in his hand which he waves urgently at the people inside. We do not know this, but somewhere close by, there is a fourth, dressed in a suit and rabbit mask. When we do finally meet him, he will only be wearing his underwear. The scene is set.

As a part of Colomboscope 2014, the British-German collective Gob Squad were invited to stage ‘Super Night Shot’ in Slave Island. The Rio Cinema (complete with risqué posters that advertise adult films like ‘Bang! I Want You’) is actually a beautiful old theatre, perfectly suited to an unconventional show like this one. It begins with the organisers asking the audience to form two long lines, a passageway from the entrance of the cinema to the doors of the theatre itself. We’re handed confetti and sparklers, and when the performers come back into the theatre, they’re greeted with hollering and bright lights. They’re still filming as they go past us, ducking under a banner that reads ‘The End.’ A few minutes wait and then we follow them in.

The show itself is the film shot by these four actors, screened simultaneously and edited in real time. At different points we hear different actors speak, and music is mixed and played through the Rio’s speakers, creating a soundtrack. At the very start, when they set their watches, they tell us they are engaged in a ‘war on anonymity’: “Each of us is just one in a million, easy to replace and easy to forget in a city that doesn’t really need us. But don’t worry. We’re going to change all that. We’ve got a plan. This city will need us and this film will be our witness.”

We know by this point that this version of ‘Super Night Shot’ was made in the hour preceding this screening, which is why every night, it’s a different film. The scaffolding of the performance is simple enough – of the four performers, one is a hero (Bastian Trost), the second is his location scout (Johanna Freiburg), the third his publicist (Mat Hand) and the fourth a kind of casting director (Berit Stumpf), in hot pursuit of a new star for their production. Each has their own task: the hero’s is to go out and find a problem and solve it. He also declares that by the end of the night, he will kiss a complete stranger.

One of the most interesting things about ‘Super Night Shot’ for audiences in Colombo is the cultural sub-text that the actors themselves may not necessarily have been aware of. There’s a language barrier but it’s still somewhat ironic to have everyone on the street tell the hero they have “no problems” (of course, Bastion may have found their problems beyond him, even if they had admitted to them.) In an email, Mat later explains: “the history of the area and the buildings that we were working in are of course very present but Gob Squad’s interaction with the area during Super Night Shot is more concerned with the here and now and less concerned with the past.”

Taken with that caveat in mind, the performance is cleverly timed, weird and wonderful in equal measure. It’s there in the premeditated moments of clarity, where even though they’ve long lost sight of each other, the actors will suddenly break into a dance at the same time or strip down to reveal the elaborate evening wear under their overalls or individually write a single word (on a pavement, under a lamp, on an auto, on a gunny sack) that turns into a sentence across the four frames. It’s in the moments that they couldn’t have planned for: when one waiter begs another to get Bastion to stop bothering him, when a group of children appear to take on the mantle of the hero, when a young man allows himself to be tenderly kissed in the middle of a traffic island by a man wearing a rabbit mask.

What Gob Squad does is interesting: each performance is unique, guided by collective design rather than directorial authority. Players parachute in to a city and while much depends on context, much else is predetermined. Does the performance really succeed in its stated purpose? Did Colombo need them? I can imagine that Super Night Shot may have had more meaningful outings and perhaps what is worth considering is what we, the host city, bring to the performance. That night, Colombo was a mix of the curious and the amused; the bewildered, the bored and the belligerent all made appearances. At least one of us was brave (their guest star took the final bow with the cast) – and in the end, for better or for worse, we got only what we gave.

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 16 February, 2014. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Gob Squad.

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