You could call Domestica an art attack. Sleepwalk Collective's new show takes a sledgehammer to art's foundations – the assumptions and conventions on which it still stands. Art, it argues, is a product of the partriachy. More than that: it props the patriarchy up. If art defines us – if we absorb its ideals and aspire to its imagery – who or what defines art? Here, history of art runs as follows: male artists selected by male curators for male spaces mansplained by male critics. Art's women are manmade creations. So too, it follows, are the world's.
Three women with bows on their backs – gift-wrapped and angelic – swan around an empty stage. They invite our projections: three sisters, three witches, nymphs, goddesses, victims. These are the women we see on stage and on screen, in books and on canvases – so we read these real women in those terms. One stands in for Botticelli's Venus, another for the Madonna. Each image is numbered with a plastic marker – a footnote for the stage – and each number stands for something absent: a velvet curtain, a balcony, a pool of blood. The stage starts to look like a crime scene. Maybe it is.
True to its name, Sleepwalk Collective's work hovers on the edge of consciousness. Their theatre is a form of dreaming in public; its secret weapon being the female voice. Iara Solano Arana's is a Spanglish whisper in which self-hypnosis meets sex line – so soothing and seductive that it can be sophorific.
Domestica is too tenacious for that. It keeps you alert, but remains ungraspable – a headswim of a show, where information overload maxes out memory and long streams of words blur in your brain. Lights undulate to ambient beats, and those numbers lose sight of their labels. Domestica disappears as if unfolds, leaving only a hazy impression of itself behind.
Form enhances its argument. All art, it insists, has a half-life, its specificity diminishing over time until only aphorisms and outlines remain: three stuck sisters, lovestruck teens, victims, whores, mothers and nude after nude after nude. We take home patterns and clichés – then replicate them in real life. If art really does change the world, isn't it guilty for the state of it?
Domestica's both a feminist rebellion and a reclamation. It opens with a declaration of war and takes us, its audience, hostage. All art does, in a way, but this punctures our platitudes about art's moral value. Far from changing the world, art sticks its head in the sand: escapist idealism that prefers beauty to truth. The two tussle for control in Domestica. As elegant, soft-spoken texts tell it like it is, it lays down a challenge: do we luxuriate in its expression or act on its content?
This is serious experimental theatre – a piece that deserves to go down as a staple. Sammy Metcalfe's collaborative texts are gorgeous; the show's essayistic form artfully considered and inescapably theatrical. Self-aware, too; of its male authorial voice, of its audience and its antecedents. Domestica critiques theatre through its own structures, with deus ex machinae and neat little epilogues, and admits its own inherent failure. Its feminist paradise is itself idealistic; a creation and a convention all of its own. We aspire to it as an untested alternative – better, surely, that the world we've got now – but who's to say it won't fall foul of the same faults?
Domestica runs at the Battersea Arts Centre until 8 October, then tours until 20 October.