Instructions for Modern Living

Philip Carter Family Auditorium, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, Christchurch

01/08/2007 - 05/08/2007

Christchurch Arts Festival 2007

Production Details

Writer/performer: Duncan Sarkies

Composer/musician, sound-designer/operator: Nic McGowan

Presented by James Ormond Wallace Trust for Young New Zealand Filmmakers & Multimedia Artists

Presented by: James Ormond Wallace Trust for Young New Zealand Filmmakers & Multimedia Artists

A portrait of contemporary NZ life captured after dark

Acclaimed playwright, fiction writer and filmmaker Duncan Sarkies, teams up with sound designer and composer Nic McGowan, to present Instructions for Modern Living – a unique audiovisual performance work set in the after-hours of New Zealand living rooms and night spots to create a tragicomic portrait of the way we live.  Instructions for Modern Living is sponsored by a new Trust based in South Canterbury, set up to honour the memory of James Ormond Wallace by supporting and presenting young filmmakers and multimedia artists.  This show is the perfect vehicle for this aim.

Recently invited to perform in festivals in Canada and at the prestigious Barbican Theatre in London in 2008, Instructions for Modern Living maintains a comic tone despite its downbeat theme and offers an experience similar to watching an album being put together. Described as a modern update of the Eleanor Rigby theme told in the style of Laurie Anderson and David Byrne, Instructions for Modern Living searches for the profound within the mundane amidst the trappings of a market saturated world.

Against a simple backdrop of a slow-moving visual wallpaper Duncan Sarkies (Scarfies, Lovepuke, Wild Man Eyes) takes to the stage to deliver a collection of monologues, stories and dialogues (often with altered voices through a vocoder device).  At the same time sound designer and former forensic scientist Nic McGowan (When Love Comes Calling, White) mixes live on-stage and plays a Rhodes piano, a vintage synthesizer, a vibraphone and “various other antiquated gizmos.” The fusion of music, story and surveillance style imagery offers a glimpse into the after hours window of suburban living rooms and urban haunts to reveal the lonely agonies of modern kiwi life.

[Sarkies] has a gift for wild, surreal and dark comedy …The man is a genius and a performer too, lighting up like a 250 watt bulb on stage.THE DOMINION POST

Warning: some language and content may offend.

Theatre ,

1 hr 30 mins, no interval

Clear-sighted, darkly humorous and technically inventive

Review by Lindsay Clark 02nd Aug 2007

Festivals carry with them the expectation of extremes. Amongst the boundary pushers on offer in Christchurch, and following its commission for the New Zealand International Festival in Wellington, 2006, this thoroughly crafted multi-media collage is right on track. Duncan Sarkies’ gentle and often ironic monologues are of a piece with Nic Mc Gowan’s Moog synthesiser, played out against a giant screen where cleverly edited images put the human elements of the show firmly in perspective. The performers move through the evening in a veritable forest of ‘gear.’

It is a very interesting combination, where the technology, in spite of its prominence, does not overwhelm the ideas being explored, but is a significant part of them. For the voices of the monologues come from little, lonely and isolated people, so myopic in their views as to be comfortably unaware of their position in contemporary urban and suburban life. The audience cannot afford to be smug for there is more than a little familiarity in the clichés and circumstances drifting past.

Happily, the range of lives visited brings both variety and a sense of escalation to a performance which could otherwise feel repetitive for the pieces are similar in tone and rhythm. Reflective, unhurried, dispassionate, the monologues bring us again and again ‘to the edge’ of realisation that modern life is a puny affair. From the ghost reluctant to call it a day, to the talk back radio host unable to raise a call and the lonely astronaut bored by the marvels of space, the subjects, images and sounds of the monologues create a landscape of resignation.

The best monologues are those with strongest irony in the telling. Invigorated in this way, the feckless gambler congratulating himself on his luck, the fast food boss insisting on happiness and the final ‘bed time story’ piece are especially potent.

It is, in sum, a clear-sighted, darkly humorous and technically  inventive performance piece, presented by  an accomplished pair. What is distinctive about their way of working is the sense that it is squarely of our age. The live human voice plays a small part in overall effects. Even then it comes through a sound system or can be recorded, manipulated and replayed. As a metaphor for alienation and some would say the tragedy of our times, the concept is effective.

On the other hand, what is inevitably lost is a sense of engagement and sharing with the audience. ‘Direct’ communication is most nearly achieved by giant images rather like the ones on the back of buses, inciting the audience to follow this or that piece of ‘advice’ from ‘Nic and Duncan’. They are smiling as they give it. 


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