Going Dark

Tue 15th – Sat 19th November 2011

reviews

Tom Kenning

at 00:02 on 16th Nov 2011

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This exceptional production delivered visually the wonders of the universe while simultaneously playing out an extremely emotive and pertinent human tragedy. From the outset, this work from Sound&Fury Theatre Company promised a unique audience experience. An intimacy was immediately established with the 360 degree audience surrounding a very small performance area and the silent contemplation of the crowd as the show concluded was complimentary to what was a truly thought provoking and powerful drama.

The lead character, a narrator at the city planetarium, played by John Mackay, acted out the odd situation of talking to the theatre audience as if they are in fact his planetarium audience. He sifted in and out of this role to the intimacy of his family life extremely adeptly. The play of his public versus private life was very effective.

On one occasion where it seemed the performance area was so small that Mackay bumped into props in the darkness and had to move props out of the way, it seemed that the production had lost some professionalism. Instead we are informed ingeniously that Mackay is in fact beginning to go blind and is often tripping on the toys of his child at home. This is just one example of the way in which ‘Going Dark’ manages to subtly keep the audience informed after slightly open ended or mystifying events or actions.

As the title suggests, light and darkness are central to the plot and this was brought about by light projections and the regular use of complete darkness with the ceiling fantastically used to project our solar system. The demonstrations were often extremely innovative, but sometimes rather feeble and at times Mackay’s narration seemed uncomfortably similar to Brian Cox’s commentary in the BBC’s ‘Wonders of the Universe’.

Early on the play seems worryingly similar to a lecture with the same drudgery of a classroom or lecture theatre, even though Mackay points out some of the most astounding features of our universe. The audience expects that we are here for drama rather than factual recitation. Indeed this is where the genius of the play becomes apparent. While the clever imagery of our solar systems and stars are explained to us by Mackay, our minds become overwhelmed with the enormity of the universe. The talk takes us out from ourselves. On the other hand, the way the formal scientific narrative drops in and out of a private, personal and emotive tragedy in Mackay’s private life takes us back into ourselves. The importance of vision for Mackay’s work is pathetically and gradually stolen from him as he is diagnosed with a rare eye condition. Thus the audience is simultaneously subjected to the Mackay’s fate by the theatre being plunged into complete darkness. The inability of other characters to understand what Mackay is going through is similarly distressing.

The tragic nature of the demise of Mackay’s sight is relieved to great effect by his humorous and often poignant conversations with his son. The child’s voice is recorded, due to the age of the child, but this added to the emotional turmoil we share with Mackay. We can imagine that he can see his son, but neither he nor the audience ever actually do.

It was unfortunate, however, that due to the intimacy of the setting and the audience surrounding the actor, there were numerous occasions in which parts of the audience were obstructed from some subtle actions of Mackay as his back was inevitably turned to some part at all times. This and the sometimes overdrawn moments of Mackay’s scientific narratives are the only problems that prevent this play from being given the highest rating.

This is a truly emotive production and like all great theatre this drama it takes us into ourselves. We become increasingly insightful as the tragedy of the piece unfolds, as Mackay becomes blinder and as the stage literally becomes darker. The audience is likely to leave the play with altered perspectives and a whole new outlook on our senses as human beings after ‘Going Dark’ comes to a very special conclusion. Paradoxically it becomes a heart warming tragedy. It is wonderfully unique and highly recommended.

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Charles Scherer

at 01:18 on 16th Nov 2011

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Leaving the theatre, I invented a background narrative about the play's conception, featuring a team from Sound and Fury meeting over drinks and agreeing that in their next project they wouldn't be satisfied with a play that was merely heartbreaking; in order to achieve artistic contentment, they would have to remind each audience member of mankind's cosmic insignificance. So they made 'Going Dark', a one man show in which you as a spectator are so emotionally involved as to forget the discomfort of your stool in the Bristol Old Vic's Studio Pit. Our protagonist, Max, played with touching fragility by John Mackay, is a demonstrator at a planetarium, faced with the inevitability of losing his sight to retinitis pigmentosa, and so the prospect of the end of his career and passion, and the challenge to his role as the single father of six-year-old Leo.

Though it is a one-hander, I can't help but think of 'Going Dark' as an ensemble piece. Max/Mackey, with his instant charm and sympathy, is not the only culprit to blame for our vicarious grief and existential trauma. The arresting but tasteful audio-visuals and the simple and poignant set are Mackay's accomplices. The projections of the Milky Way onto the ceiling were haunting, the recurring appearance of Leo's outer space-themed nightlight was delicately nostalgic, and with nothing more than a crumpled ball of tissue paper and an LED, I was perfectly willing to accept that Max was holding a dying star.

After all of these, what stuck the most, and what had me alternately chuckling in appreciation and moist in the eye was the voice of Leo. Leo was disembodied, existing entirely as voice recordings, but he was for all intents and purposes present, thanks to Mackey's superbly timed interaction and the naturalism of those ideas and questions we recognise from our own early memories or from the voice of any child we know. I can only conjecture that hours must have been spent recording conversations with a child to produce such germane and natural speech.

The skill of the play is very much in the way it assumes command of its audience's condition. We become the crowd at the planetarium, invited to try and fathom the distance between galaxies and the concept of an era before time. While we're still grappling with lightyears and the implications of eternity, the setting is snapped into the home of one man and his son, facing their very human, very worldly challenges. Before we're adjusted, back we are whisked to the spheres of Orion and Sirius. Expect a mental, emotional exhaustion, but one of real satisfaction. Much as I'd love to write in detail about how marvellous the darkness and intimacy of the auditorium was, I'm sure there's no hope of communicating the effect which has to be seen and experienced. I will expand only so much as to promise that the use of light, and lack thereof, is complex, nuanced, even witty, and is perhaps the crowning glory of a thoroughly researched and meticulously constructed piece.

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