An audience in the dark

Fiction

Malvern Theatres

***

Fiction is another innovative production from Fuel, a refreshing company which allows its artists the freedom to create unusual shows which ignore the limitations of traditional theatre.

Last year at Malvern I thoroughly enjoyed Will Adamsdale’s surreal comedy drama The Victorian in the Wall, a Fuel and Royal Court Theatre co-production, in which a normal man in a normal house stumbles across a Victorian gentleman whilst embarking on an ambitious DIY project.

I was therefore keen to experience this latest offering from Fuel, a piece written by Glen Neath and directed by David Rosenberg, and found the promotional materials most enticing.

‘You are invited to a lecture,’ the website and Facebook page read. ‘You know that the subject is probably important and it would be useful to hear what the speaker has to say but you can’t keep your eyes open.

‘You will fall asleep and you will dream. But you won’t be alone in your dream; everyone else will be there with you. And you will have a chaperone who knows the landscape and will attend to you. So nothing can go wrong... unless... no... just close your eyes.’

We are offered an anxious journey through the sprawling architecture of our dreams; we are promised an exercise in empathy. Failing that, we are given the opportunity of an hour’s snooze.

Commissioned by the Cambridge Festival of Ideas, Cambridge Junction and Bournemouth Arts by the Sea Festival, this is Glen Neath and David Rosenberg’s second collaborative performance which uses binaural sound and absolute darkness.

Binaural recording, as opposed to stereo recording, creates a three dimensional sound sensation for listeners, so that they have the impression of actually being in the room alongside any performers or musicians heard. This works best with headphones, and on entering the theatre space each audience member is handed a numbered pair of headphones and shown to the corresponding seat, having been separated from any other members of their party.

Whilst waiting for the proceedings to commence, instructions are projected onto a big screen in front of us. We are asked to turn phones off to prevent accidental light and to hide anything luminous. We are told that once the show starts it will be difficult to leave but that in an emergency we should put a hand up and say ‘help’.

HEADPHONES

I wonder why anyone would need to do that. Through the headphones comes the sound of background music, muffled voices and footsteps (all music and sound is by Ben and Max Ringham). It is impossible to tell whether these sounds are recordings or an amplification of what’s happening in the room as more people are shown to their seats.

Another projection tells us that half the people sitting in the room are actors. One of them (Karen Cogan) gets up onto the stage as instructed and begins to read out her script. As she speaks, the lights dim, and we are left in darkness. This is not the kind of darkness your eyes slowly adjust to, or the darkness you’d see now if you closed your eyes, but total, utter blackness. It is not something many of us experience often, and the combination of this along with the sounds seeming to come from all around me, and the voice – my aural chaperone - whispering in my ear, was incredibly unnerving. Such total immersion into an almost instantly internal environment, with the imagination filling so many gaps, reminded me of the sensory deprivation I once experienced in a floatation tank. Except that this was far from relaxing.

Although I doubted that the room was half full of actors, it seemed highly plausible that there were at least some other actors in the room, and as this seemed like an experiential work, it felt that to add to the authenticity of the whispers in my ear, someone could have reached out and touched me at any time. The voice began to lead me on an uncomfortable journey, and for a short while it was one of the deepest and most bizarre experiences I’ve ever had, not just in the theatre, but anywhere. I wondered where my chaperone would lead me, and if she could be trusted to keep me safe, and then I began to feel ill.

Queasily I put up my hand and asked to leave the room. A real life chaperone appeared with torch and showed me to the doors. Outside was another woman, waiting for feeble cases like me who found the whole thing too disorientating to remain until the end. I waited in the foyer for the production to finish, keen to hear others’ views of the experience. Interestingly, although I was the only person to leave, a couple of people did say that they would have left but didn’t feel able to because of where they were sitting. (Fortunately for me I was right next to the exit.) Others said they really enjoyed it, despite feeling unnerved.

A couple of people were quite angry that there hadn’t been more indication as to the content of the piece, which although not ridiculously gruesome, was more disturbing because of the nature of the whole experience, the lack of visual stimuli, the idea that when the lights came up that same scene could appear right in front of you, or that the person in the chair next to you might have met an unpleasant end. A few people I spoke to looked quite bewildered, and said they really didn’t know what they thought of it just yet.

One thing I do love about Fuel productions is that the audience often has an opportunity after a show to speak to members of the cast and creative team, to ask questions and hear about the creative process and the aims of a piece. This is undoubtedly an incredibly effective way to immerse an audience, and many in the post-show chat expressed their enjoyment of the rare total darkness and the sense of freedom and escapism it brought.

There is the argument that theatre should not be ‘safe’, but I felt that Fiction went too far the other way. Only the word ‘anxious’ in the promotional material hints at any kind of psychological darkness, and in my opinion, because of the methods used in this production, the creators need to ensure that prospective audience members are fully aware of what to expect (without, of course, ruining any suspense). I did feel that my comment to this effect was taken on board after the show, and again, I get the impression that those involved with Fiction, as with other Fuel productions, are genuinely interested in gathering and acting upon audience feedback.

It is difficult, or as one woman quite forcefully put it ‘unfair’, for me to fully comment on the show seeing as I had to leave less than half way through, but opinions seemed split, and I do think it worth noting the physical and psychological effects that such a piece can have, and several people mentioned the fight or flight response kicking in. It is probably difficult to understand the force of these effects without experiencing something similar, but for those who suffer from anxiety or panic attacks (which I don’t), it could be made clearer that this is possibly not the show for them.

Having said that, I have no doubt that for many, this will be one of the most striking theatre visits for a long time, and I admire the bravery of the creators for doing something utterly different from the norm. Gentle entertainment it is not, but if you’re after an evening out like no other, this could be just the thing for you.

With only two ‘showings’ in Malvern, both on this one night, Fiction moves straight to Birmingham and plays at the mac on October the 16th and 17th before wending its way to other areas of the country.

Amy Rainbow

14-10-14 

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