Glasgow: Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

Display containing the Bell Ringers, the Hunchback, the Tower of Medieval Science, the Tower of Babel, the Castle, and the Clock of Life. These are meant to tell the story of Stalin’s purges.

Now, this is an interesting one. Not that most of the places I visit don’t have something interesting about them, but this one is really a bit out there. Knowing what a fan I am of animatronics, and well, just weird shit, basically, Marcus booked us tickets to see the “adult” version of the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre, which took place at 5pm on a Sunday (check their website for all available dates and times) and lasted for about an hour. It cost £10.

La Strada (On the Road) “Who pulls the strings? Who is being pulled?”

We arrived just in the nick of time (we got a bit lost on the way there, because Sharmanka doesn’t have its own dedicated building, but is housed inside an arts centre (Trongate 103), which took us much longer to figure out than it should have), and it was a good thing too, because the doors are locked for the duration of the show (I wish they would do this at the theatre too, because I hate jerks walking in halfway through the first act, which is what happened when I recently saw Hadestown at the National Theatre (which was otherwise great). They always are inevitably seated right in the middle of the row too – what’s up with that? Do only jerks pick those seats?). I should emphasise that you could get out, just that nobody could get in. It wasn’t a fire hazard or anything.

Detail from the Orient Express. “An image of Death riding a railcar over the vast Steppes of Russia.”

So, what the hell is Sharmanka(?), you may be asking yourself at this point, and rightly so. Well, to quote their information sheet, “Sharmanka is the Russian word for barrel organ.”…which really does not explain what the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre is. More to the point, it is a show wherein metal sculptures light up and move to music. “This set of Kinetic Sculptures was made by Eduard Bersudsky in his only living space, an 18-square-metre room in a communal flat in Leningrad in the 1970s and ’80s.” Bersudsky was not permitted to exhibit these sculptures under communism, so for a while it was just an eccentric hobby. However, he did start showing them from 1989 onwards, but due to a lack of money to support the arts in Russia (or at least his version of the arts), he decided to move his collection to Scotland in the mid 1990s. They have been on display in their current location since 2009.

Victoria. “The figure of a crucified man in a yarmulke comes to life in the centre of moving chains, swords, and saws.”

The show begins whilst you are seated on benches around a large display of these kinetic figures. They light up one by one, music comes on, and the action kicks in. These particular figures were probably the most family-friendly, simply being of towers and things with little men doing acrobatics and ringing bells. After about fifteen minutes of watching this, you are asked to move to the back of the theatre, and that’s where things get a bit lewd. Well, more than a bit.

NIckodym. “Co-operation of genders.”

I believe the family friendly show simply progresses to another large display of figures opposite the er, randy ones, since those never lit up whilst we were there, and they must use them for something. The adult show has you moving around the room to follow the figures lined up around the perimeter as they light up, and since they don’t go in order, it’s kind of fun trying to guess which one will light up next (I watched the room like a hawk, and was enormously pleased when I managed to detect movement before everyone else, ensuring myself a prime spot in front of the next figure). Like the main display of figures, these all move as well, though these had the added benefit of pretty much all having some sort of penis, one of which was almost poking me right in the eye during one of the displays (so actually, maybe don’t sit right in front of them!). One guy had a literal bell-end with a miniature bell dangling from his tip.

Willy-the-Belfry. “Willy was a Shetland pony who patiently watched Eduard work in the first few years of our time in Scotland.”

Well, I suppose it wasn’t all phallocentric, since some of the figures had breasts instead, like the figure of Death a few paragraphs up, since Death is viewed as female in Russian culture. But lest you worry, there was no actual robot sex happening in front of us, just a lot of awfully bouncy penises, one of which was even operating a treadle that clashed a cymbal. I think you can probably tell I’m fairly lost for words as to how best to describe this show (though I certainly snickered a lot as I was watching it) – I think it’s just one of those things you’d have to see for yourself.

This guy didn’t move, but I think he’s meant to be St. Mungo, patron saint of Glasgow.

The robots are mainly made from old junk, so they’re not the most attractive things, but they are quite creative, especially the troll with boogers bouncing up and down in his nose. The music is specifically chosen to match up with each robot and its action, but I didn’t always see an obvious connection between the music and the theme of each piece (most of the songs are just instrumentals, and I’m not familiar enough with classical music to have known what they were). I think the general message here is meant to be one about the dangers of communism, but if you hadn’t read the descriptions about each figure, I don’t know if you would have necessarily gotten that from just watching them (though I suppose the rats contained within the pieces to represent the worker cogs in the machine were a clue. They reminded me of that piss-take of a Soviet cartoon they show in Krusty Gets Cancelled, with Worker and Parasite).

Self Portrait with Monkey. This is the booger troll.

It was indeed a very unusual experience, and certainly at least in theory the sort of thing I enjoy, though not quite on the same level as animatronic presidents. I do think some of the pieces did their things for longer than they needed to, as there’s only so long you can watch a robot wiggle his willy (surprisingly, I know, as I would have thought I could watch that sort of thing for hours), but I think I would have regretted not seeing it once I’d heard about it, so I’m glad we went, even though I don’t think I really got the message it was trying to send. 3/5.

Selection of figures including Shaman (middle).

8 comments

  1. Oh, that was unexpected! I hadn’t realised it was anything other than family friendly, or that there was any message. I just thought they were fun sculptures (i’ve only ever seen one, displayed elsewhere). I’ll definitely have to make the effort to go now …

  2. Kudos to Marcus for finding this one. Definitely an interesting break from all the history and fried mars bars. I’ve now added Glasgow to my “places to visit” list (which keeps getting longer…).

  3. Wow… this was not at all what I was expecting. Though it does sound kinda fun and I like the idea of being able to get up and move around throughout the show. Better than being pinned in your seat for an hour or two if it doesn’t turn out to be your cup of tea.
    And they are pretty neat looking – the troll and Willy the Belfry especially. But the Death one freaks me out because it looks like its screaming.
    I’m so glad you didn’t get eye-poked by the mechanical willy. Though I’d be interested to hear if there’s insurance coverage for such a thing.

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