Review – Kontakt, Royal and Derngate Young Company Immerse, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 21st June 2015

KontaktYou don’t need me to tell you, gentle reader, that with a bit of ingenuity and some thinking outside the box you can make theatre out of anything. I love experimental theatre. I love to be challenged, to be shocked, to be made uncomfortable. I want to come out of a show a changed person from the one I was when I went in. I want the cast to speak to me in a new way, for us to develop a relationship together, and to have a shared experience with the rest of the audience that you can talk about and reflect on long into the future. This is a big ask, and you don’t often get it. But Kontakt is one of those theatrical experiences that really offers something different, and has certainly led to more thoughtful and questioning post-show discussions than many a standard drama. For one thing, although Mrs Chrisparkle and I went along together, we had completely different experiences, and being able to compare and contrast our own reactions and recollections of what went on was fascinating in itself.

You have some basic information about the show in advance, but not enough to reach any substantial conclusions about what’s in store. “One table, two chairs, an actor and you. If a young person could ask an adult anything, what would it be?” When I first read that, I found it (naturally) intriguing, but I had a vision of a small audience sitting in a circle around an actor performing a fully scripted monologue involving a not inconsiderable amount of soul-searching. Well, how wrong was I?

I’m going to tell you my own experience with this show, which will be different from anyone else’s. If you’re about to see a production then I suggest you don’t read any more. The element of surprise is vital for its success, and you won’t thank me for spilling the majority of the beans. Still with me? Great! There is a constantly changing dynamic within this show that continuously wrongfoots the audience member. You’re forever swapping a sense of self-confidence for one of doubt and mystery. No sooner do you get accustomed to the current mood then you get whacked into a different one.

Let’s start at the beginning. You choose a number at random (I chose 6 because it’s my lucky number), receive a (rather antiquated) mobile phone and then you stand in a square drawn on the floor, awaiting….something. You’re not sure what, but let’s call it Kontakt. You’re on display, your usual props of self-protection are removed from you, and apart from maybe a couple of nervous chats with other people in other boxes you feel surprisingly alone. From the corner of your eye you notice a line of young people walk into an upstairs foyer, stand at the railing, and look directly down on you. They say nothing. They betray no thoughts. Do you look at them? Do you look away? I did both. They disappear silently.

Your phone rings. It’s not your phone, it’s the one they gave you, and, if you’re like me, you struggle to work out which button to push to receive the call. I guessed right. “Hello?” “Hello, my name’s Sam. What’s your name? “Hi Sam, my name is Chris”. Seven other people are having more or less the same conversation and you find it hard to hear the person talking directly to you. “How was your journey?” “Fine thanks, we only live a short walk away”. Another question, but I couldn’t hear it properly. “Sorry, can you repeat that?” He repeated it, but I still only half-heard, and answered the question I thought he asked. There was a pause. I must have answered the wrong question. I surprised myself by how much I wanted to make a positive impression. He’s going to think I’m an utter idiot, I thought. Sam sounded upbeat though. He directed me which way to go. “When you come in, I’m sitting at the desk nearest the entrance door, on the right”. “Well, I will be the last person in the queue to walk in”. Assignation made.

DesksI walked in, to the space I know well as the Underground, where we regularly see the Screaming Blue Murder comedy nights, and a few other experimental productions. But with dim lighting and a vaguely smoky atmosphere of burning incense, it could have been another world. In front of me, a number of identical looking school desks, and audience members individually greeting their Kontakts. Sam gets up and looks expectantly. “You must be Sam,” I say, shaking his hand. He courteously offers me the chair in front of his desk, and invites me to stow the phone in the pocket attached to the back of the chair. I sit down, and he sits down. He starts to converse. At the same time, all the other Kontakts start to converse, each saying precisely the same words. The consonants of eight actors echo and clatter in the eerie atmosphere. It’s a private conversation, but it’s shared too. It feels unique – but seven other people are having the same experience, so it can’t be unique. It’s already breaking so many rules.

Sam lifts up the desk lid to create an instant barrier between us. It had all been so friendly up to this point, but this one action disconcerts and stops you from saying anything. From behind the desk he slowly, silently, and incredibly threateningly, starts putting on a pair of surgical latex gloves. Your brain says “WTF?” but your mouth stays silent. It brought to mind the terrifying Act Four nurses in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, strumming their gloved fingers with potential abuse, as if by some devious manner Sam was about to lobotomise me without my consent. It’s a Verfremdungseffekt that would have Brecht curling his toes in ecstasy. “I’m hoping you’re hungry” says Sam suddenly, as he puts the desk lid down and reveals a picnic. A Tupperware box with two slices of bread and a rather sweaty looking slice of cheese; some bags of crisps, some strawberry jam, some Nutella. A big tub of Utterly Butterly. This is not the toolkit of a lobotomist. I’d not actually eaten anything since breakfast, so was pleased to opt for a cheese and crisp sandwich. The latex gloves came into their own as he deftly unwrapped the Kraft Cheese Slice and plonked it hygienically onto the bread. He carefully positioned crisps on top of said slice and delicately placed the other slice of bread on top. In this alien atmosphere it’s amazing how much you notice the slightest detail of what’s going on in front of you. It’s as though your brain is telling you to be on heightened alert because you don’t know what’s coming next. It could be fight or flight. “Triangle or square?” I chose triangle. He cut it diagonally and we shared a convivial cheese and crisp sandwich as Sam reflected that no one had chosen to mix jam and crisps, to some disappointment on his part.

Top TipsAnd so it goes on. Light hearted conversation as we do a maths puzzle together; a game of Jenga where each piece has a number that refers to a question we ask each other; a game of noughts and crosses which he kindly lost; an exchange of top tips for life; discussions about our fears, irrational and otherwise; an unexpected group participation dancing to Aqua’s Barbie Girl and ending with a card trick that neatly brought the whole event full circle. That all sounds rather jolly and genial, doesn’t it? And indeed it was. But it’s not natural. It’s not organic. It’s fully controlled – or should that be kontrolled? Separating every seemingly genuine conversation, there’s a detached, non-sequitur-like, disquieting sequence. At one stage, a disembodied American voice starts giving advice on how to get the most out of life – and you notice your Kontakt is silently saying the same words, miming along precisely with the same rhythm and expression. I watch Sam’s lips intently as he intones the anonymous advice, like he has been possessed by some spirit. I appreciate the anomaly of someone young enough to be waiting for his GCSE results to come through, giving me, who has already started to draw down his pension, advice on how to lead a good life. But you find yourself responding, silently, to the points he is making. When you really agree with him, you mouth “absolutely!” or nod profoundly, and I discovered, to my surprise, that I was actively giving advice back without actually saying a word. And that’s when it was that I realised I had connected – or should that be konnected – with Sam. I gained a sense of confidence with him. I realised I was on his side. Later on, there was a sequence where all the Kontakts talked about the things in life that annoyed them. One person stood up to give one example, then another, then another. It was like a competition between them to out-declaim the others. I realised that I wanted Sam to “win” this game – to give the best examples of things that annoy, and to deliver them in the most telling or humorous way. And, of course, naturally, because I was on his side, he did. I was Team Sam.

We discovered – or should that be diskovered? – that we shared the same irrational fear of flying insects. I dismayed him by the fact that I actually like Barbie Girl and could embarrass him with my Ken impersonation. I gave him a congratulatory handshake for his excellent card trick that I still don’t know how he managed. A few times he hooted with barely suppressed laughter. I couldn’t tell if that was genuine, scripted, or somewhere in between. We drew a picture of each other, despite both of us having no artistic skills whatsoever. This was a surprisingly personal thing to do – and I felt rather embarrassed at how horrified he looked at the image of him that I was creating with my pencil. There was another sequence – I can’t quite remember how it fitted in to everything else that took place – where nothing was said, or done, except that he was trying to outstare me. I stared back. He took the liberty of repositioning my pen on the desk. Well, I wasn’t having that. I swivelled his noughts and crosses paper from portrait to landscape. He looked affronted. I started to smile. I felt mischievous. I looked up at the dangling light bulb above our heads. He looked startled. Still staring at him, I slowly raised my arm toward the light bulb. He appeared transfixed at what I might do next. Eventually I gave the light bulb the tiniest tap with my finger so that it wobbled fractionally. “Beat that” said my eyes. The sequence ended at that point, so I won that one.

At the end, I asked him why it was called Kontakt and not Contact. He wasn’t sure. He thought it was something to do with the original developer of the show back in 2008, but before we could discuss it further, came the signal that it was all over. The lights went down. We all knew that when they came back up again, we’d be alone at our desks. And, sure enough, when we could see again, we were, like a modern day debit card, contactless. Or should that be kontaktless. But I know why it’s Kontakt. A genuine meeting between two people, where you just chatted and organically shared experiences would have been a contact. But this is not that. It’s similar; it sounds the same, but it looks different. The actor calls the shots. For you at times it feels like it’s interrogation, a test, an interview, an assessment. You are powerless to steer the course of these 45-60 minutes. It feels like the actor decides when each segment ends. He decides when a genuinely heartfelt and concerned conversation about how we deal with ISIS, changes into a surreal scripted monologue, or a stare-athon. And of course it’s the same for all the actors; their rules, their mood-swings, their agenda, their control; their Kontakt. Even after the show was over, I was at a disadvantage. We all received texts from our Kontakts, thanking us for participating. My instant reaction was to text back, but my ham-fistedness on an unfamiliar phone meant that I couldn’t even formulate the word “thank” – it became “thigh”, which wasn’t an entirely suitable response. So I ended up not replying, which felt thoroughly ungrateful.

Noughts and Crosses winnerThe success, or otherwise, of this experience, depends on a number of things. The audience member has to play the game. I could imagine that if you were unco-operative, or somehow destructive, or spoke inappropriately, it could be a disastrous experience all round. There’s a huge amount of trust and respect at stake here. I liked the fact that, although the allocation of Kontakt to audience member appeared to be random, each couple was either male/male or female/female, primarily because this increased the opportunities for shared experiences and opinions or advice, and reduced the potential for true embarrassment.

For someone like me, who actively enjoys the process of making new friends, this was a fascinating and eye-opening way to spend an hour with a stranger. Frustrating too, as you realise afterwards the possible/ probable artificiality of what felt like a genuine meeting. How much of that person opposite me was the real Sam? A lot, I think, but it’s impossible to be certain. Mrs C (who had got on thoroughly well with her interlocutor, Heidi) and I agreed that to carry off this sequence of Kontakts over a number of performances was brilliant training for these young people. If nothing else comes of it, they will be so much more confident in interview situations in the future, and will have developed some superb social skills. I also hope they met some nice people! Obviously, I can only speak for Sam but I thought he gave a brilliant performance – if it was a performance. The show raises many questions about public and private identity, reality and fiction, individuality and herd behaviour. I was totally wowed by it! And I want to know how Sam does in his GCSEs!

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