Doppelgangster’s Choke Me

A review by Jacob Jackson

Picture Credit: Becky Payne

Reviewing Doppelgangster’s ‘Choke Me’ is a unique experience. I find myself fixating on the smell of the smoke machines that set the fire alarms off; my ears still humming from the loud, heavy music, the feeling of the ear plugs; and the dizzying visual spectacle of flashing lights and video projections beaming through the haze. 

Doppelgangster performances are immediately gripping, they demand your attention. Company Directors Dr Tom Payne (Sheffield) and Tobias Manderson-Galvin (Melbourne) go to extreme lengths to make key points on environmental issues. Underscored by the music of composer Jules Pascoe, their performances aggressively flag up the urgent need for governments to act and fight the good fight before our planet is irreparably damaged by climate change. ‘Choke Me’ is no exception to the rule.

Every Doppelgangster performance has a unique narrative, a journey it takes the audience on. The journey in ‘Choke Me’ is to death. That’s no insult. This sixty-minute performance literally ends with Death and the earth mother Gaia casually chatting about what they want to do before ‘The Void’ snatches everyone up, and we are left with nothing but a life-less earth. An earth that’s rife with poisonous gas from pollution. 

Gaia, played magnificently by Georgina Beresford, is broken and pessimistic. She looks forward to greeting The Void, and revels in the fact that eventually the last remaining humans will be dead. Death, played by India Birchall, is a lively, warm, human character, who wants to engage in one last sordid recreational activity before The Void takes them all. It’s a wonderful metaphor that shows the recklessness of human nature: the earth has suffered long enough, it’s time for humanity to end in one big ritual.

Each chapter of the Performance operates like this, getting closer to the end of the world, though a variety of metaphors and sketches designed to satirise humanity’s apathy in response to climate change. In one sequence, Beresford and Harry Walker scream lyrics to a heavy metal song about wanting the noxious killer gas to choke them. Unsurprisingly, the song, which shares the show’s provocative title, is rife with innuendos. While the performers headbang, the lyrics are projected on the rear wall of the set, an invitation, perhaps, for audience members like myself that increasingly feel the urge to participate. 

What keeps you going, as you get closer to impending doom, are the wonderfully troubled and, by turns, troubling narrators, James Sutherland and Maisie Bamford. Sutherland’s voice is so deep that he sounds like death himself, and Bamford has all the chilling authority of a mega corporation. One is dressed like a monk of the Antichrist, the other, like an underworld matriarch, their dark demeanour and prophetic tones constantly reminding us that the end is nigh for humanity. It was amusing and provocative when these characters talked about impending doom but then drifted off into random thoughts about everyday human interactions, embellishing the idea that we, as a society, are easily distracted, and often forget about the real world problems that are affecting us such as climate change, species extinction and pollution.

Doppelgangster’s signature as a theatre company is that they use earpiece technology to feed the dialogue and action to the performers on the stage whilst they are performing. Despite the chaos, everything is in sync and the timing of the show is uncannily perfect. The cast made up of young artists from Sheffield Hallam University (under the movement direction of choreographer Sarah April Lamb) executed their tasks seamlessly. They moved with perfect fluidity from scene to scene, singing, dancing, and at one point even blowing up giant inflatable swans with collective precision. 

What Dopplegangster have achieved with the students of Hallam is remarkable. The cast was committed, evidently working hard to meet the professional demands of ensemble work. A standout moment includes Euan Irving’s menacing delivery of a passage of bleak poetry about an old woman who swallowed most of the animal kingdom. The audience were quickly trapped in a call and response chant of ‘Die! Die! Die!’ by Irving, who was dressed as a black metal ring master. Watching this, I found that all the outfits; the police uniforms, the narrator’s attire, even the ringmaster, they were all outfits representative of institutions that have existed for decades that are now seemingly losing control and falling into the madness. Euan Irving’s poem in the play, reflects mankind’s absurd persistence, consuming everything in sight without acknowledging that we are the harbingers of our own destruction. 

This political satire didn’t hold back on the consequences of human action, or inaction, in regard to the planet. Colorless projections of black and white vintage cartoons from the 1920’s reminded us of the Great Depression and added to the feeling that humanity is heading towards a grim dystopian future. The dark humour was reflective of the student and millennial generation, poking fun at the uselessness of organisations such as the United Nations. Dangerous smoke seeped through the dry, white walls of the set, which looked like a typical office room, occupied at different times by actors playing a cast of council members who can’t or won’t do anything.

Despite its unconventional post-dramatic form, the performance continually hit so close to reality. As I walked home through the city streets, the buzzing still in my ears, I was left with the feeling that all we can do is laugh at our futile situation, or perhaps, like Doppelgangster and this cast from Sheffield Hallam, we can act and do something truly radical before the smoke takes us all.

Picture Credit: Becky Payne

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