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Arts Fest Review: Instructions for Modern Living

Instructions for Modern Living

Reviewed by Richard Thomson

Instructions for Modern Living
By Duncan Sarkies and Nic McGowan
10–15 March
Soundings Theatre, Te Papa

"Bloody fiddly," muttered Nic McGowan towards the end of this two-man show, which features him and Duncan Sarkies on the rather large Soundings Theatre stage, each with their own forbidding tower of AV equipment.

Yes, he was talking about the machines, which operated about as smoothly as could be expected of digital equipment; which is to say that after a day spent at a desk wrestling with my own man-machine interface, the last thing I felt like doing was watching someone else cheerfully pushing buttons on a remote and twiddling knobs.

Perhaps it was just that too-relaxed attitude that got to me: sitting in my seat thinking, these bastards don't look like they're taking this seriously at all. They should do, the whole thing looks like it could crash any moment and we'll be stuck here waiting for God knows how long and they'll just chuckle, make some smart comment and fiddle with the remote some more...

All completely deliberate on their part, of course: this unsettling blend of human ineptitude, barely understood technology and inappropriately grand venues is more or less what passes for modern living, much of the time.

Funny then that Sarkies' monologues which, accompanied by McGowan, form the greater part of the show, seemed to come from some other time altogether. A simpler, if no less emotionally complex time. The 1980s maybe? Modern Living is in a tradition of great 1980s acts, such as The Front Lawn and Laurie Anderson, and the acute pain of loneliness, deprivation and isolation in Sarkies' stories is something that hasn't been so popular lately in the current era of digitally generated chest-beating, ring-bearing national cultural pride.

I'm not suggesting that stories like these have passed some cultural use-by date, only that this is one more of many disjunctions in the show.

The inescapable implication of all this is that Sarkies and McGowan are mounting a two-man campaign to convince the world that no one should expect the expected in their lives, and there is disappointment and loneliness in store.

Sarkies accomplishes this in the tradition of what John Clarke called the Kiwi ability to be funny without telling jokes. Not that there aren't jokes. The one liners and McGowan's low-key, often very beautiful music bubble along throughout.

Does it hold together? Yes, I think, if mostly because you're always aware that there are two sharp minds behind it all that already knew, before you noticed, that no amount of fiddling was ever going to produce true harmony.

Modern Living is deliberately, willfully edgy, and amidst the extravagant striving for technical and artistic perfection that marks much festival fare, that's no bad thing.


NZ Arts Festival: Instructions for Modern Living
Scoop Audio Interview: Instructions for Modern Living's Nic McGowan
Scoop Full Coverage: Festival 06

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