Devised by Re:Group Collective
Studio, Sydney Opera House
June 8-11, 2022
While the proliferation of digital theatre during Covid had live theatre anxious over its future the technologically tuned-in Coil offers the theatrical equivalent to the hybrid car. Coil is a live-cinema event, that is, a mix of live performance and screen action, and while hilarious is, at the same time, elegiac in mood. Lamenting the close of the once well-patronised local video store – as well as the loss of youthful ambitions and friendships – this is cleverly crafted, innovative and deeply engaging theatre.
As a technologically challenged young teacher I watched in horror as a reel inexplicably jumped off the projector and lay on the floor uncoiling in increasingly widening loops. The VHS was my salvation but then other teachers forgot to “be kind and rewind” and the slimline DVD with a better and more enduring quality picture became my best friend. Cruising the video store for suitable DVDs with which to educate, entertain and pacify teenagers became a habit. The teens entertained me back – making up scenarios mixing up lines from their favourite movies. I had long conversations, often joined by other late evening borrowers, with the video store owner on my patch and he recommended many art house films that even now I remember with affection.
The stage set of Coil faithfully replicates the Redfern video store when I came to live here: white shelves, alphabetised categories, glaring overhead lights, signs indicating the cost (and fines) and by the cash register, chips and chocolate. However, and a symptom of its demise, the video store moved from main street to side street and began to offer cheaper rental fees. When it closed, to be replaced by a charcuterie, I behaved exactly as Steve Wilson-Alexander (who with brilliant timing is both himself and a menu of other maniacally funny characters) describes and despite the rock-bottom cost of a $1 per DVD I didn’t buy any, unable to make up my mind. Now I trawl through the offerings of Netflix etcetera with a jaundiced air, switch off the TV and think with longing of “my” lost video-store.
All of this is contained in Coil. In its original conception it was the project of a much larger group but it is now down to a very talented three-person crew who manage miracles (apart from a single hitch which many of the audience thought was scripted). While it may seem
that Wilson-Alexander bears the main burden – and his immense energy and warmth create a dominant impression – the complex technology which allows him to play more than one character is very much dependent upon the man-behind the camera (Solomon Thomas) and Carly Young (who has several other tasks) at the tech-desk.
When the fragmented segments filmed in the first part of the performance come together with live streaming from the stage in the second half as a short film, also entitled Coil, the technological wizardry is impressive. This Coil (written by Mark Rogers) tells the story of a lonely ex-rental employee (Wilson-Alexander), video loyal to the last, who tries to win back the affections of a former employee (Young) by recreating their video shop past. She has long moved on and regretfully, because she knows it will cause him pain, she makes it clear that he too should abandon the past.
The internet offers ease of access – the ability to remain comfortably at home instead of going to the video-store, the bookshop, the cinema, and the department store – and a fully automated future beckons. Coil, and deservedly so, has proved a hit with audiences, which says perhaps that the loss of what can happen creatively when people come together – when they meet – is already regretfully acknowledged. I have to say that I loved Coil.