DOMESTICA at The Door, Birmingham Rep

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Theatre group Sleepwalk Collective have returned to the UK to perform their new show Domestica, a production that functions as live art more than theatre, if the two can be distinguished from one another. What is delivered is an experience that is unlike most others one might have in a theatre space this yearWhether that means you should see it is another thing entirely.

Three actors (one nearly always silent) lead the audience through what might be described as a show of many parts: it is a mixed media feminist essay, set to undulant music, with an aesthetic that balances delicacy, colour and severity and eventually recalls a crime scene. 

One of the show’s triumphs is its design. Lights pulse and pull focus, props are meticulously placed, music dizzies us. The back-wall projector provides diverting insights. Brightly coloured dresses with oversized bows adorn each actor, making them look like Christmas gifts to be unwrapped, or women of the court, or mythical figuresSmall dramaturgical choices like this add up to raise questions, and impel the audience to consider their meaning. Here, form informs and elevates content.

However, the material at the heart of the show, while progressive and experimental, is at times arduous and pompous. We are told at the beginning that the intention of the production is to bore us to death. That speech – the declaration of war – which goes on long enough to first confuse, and then unsettle the audience, is provocative enough to intrigue in its own peculiar way. But later in the production, the opening speech seems like a cover, not a caveat. How can one accuse them of being boring when that is what they said they wanted to do? How can anyone criticise the show for its monotony? But when the skewering of high culture and patriarchal hand-me-downs seems hollow, we know there must be a problem.   

At times the script comes across as almost masturbatory in the way it espouses its ideals, and demonstrates knowledge of high art and references many (white) histories and many (white) cultures. It has been made for theatre folks to fawn over. Unfortunately the actual intellectual work it does is not particularly new, though its delivery is certainly unique.

Combating the silencing of women in art is one of the aims of this show, and so it makes sense that the most powerful moment of the evening comes to pass when the one thus-far silent performer takes the mic. This is when the audience are met with Divine Intervention. Her voice slowly modulates into something vaguely satanic, testing us again, playing with our expectations.

To find someone that dismisses Domestica as unambitious or bland work would be a difficult task. But while its difference should be applauded (and is, by this reviewer), it should be noted that its appeal to audiences is surely limited. The work is densely referential, highly affected and occasionally dull. Thespian pretension dampens the feminist power on display.  ★★☆☆☆    Will Amott   18th October 2016