Canary Wharf, London
One of the positive things to come out of the pandemic, at least as far as I was concerned, was the time and space to discover a whole range of innovative and intriguing playmakers. One that I found to be consistently surprising was Darkfield and their online material gathered together as Darkfield Radio. This promoted site specific theatre even when we couldn’t actually go anywhere. Their neat answer was to get you using spaces in your own home or in permitted public places such as a park bench. Well crafted audio pieces, such as Knot and Eternal, were strong on the creepiness and disorientation which formed the bedrock of their content.
Now they’ve gone back to an idea which they used prior to the great lockdown with a trio of short pieces taking place in converted shipping containers currently located in Canary Wharf in London’s Docklands.
Entitled Flight, Eulogy and Coma, entering each one in turn audience members are invited to sit in, respectively an aeroplane seat, a metal laundry transporter and for the third lie down in a bunk bed. In each case a pair of headphones is donned and the setting plunged into pitch black darkness. It is the sensory deprived mind that then does much of the work as some stunningly evocative binaural sound does the heavy lifting. It is hauntingly different and mostly in a very good way.
As you can tell this is far from conventional theatre going; indeed, it’s questionable where the line between drama and art installation can be drawn – if it can be at all. Although the storylines (and I’m using that term very very loosely) are divergent the themes which run through the trio of pieces are consistent, being about alienation, uncertainty and even paranoia. They leave many questions unanswered – and are meant to. I definitely felt disconcerted but then that is one of theatre’s many diverse functions.
Providing further unity, however, are the stylistic tropes: the heavy sense of immersion into a parallel world, the confidential whispering voice just behind your ear, the sudden blasts of heavy vibration which threaten to unseat you, the creeping sense that something totally unnerving is about to happen.
Indeed, in my case it did during Flight, as a pair of headphones in the empty seat next to me vibrated loose of their mooring and connected with my foot in the inky darkness: I nearly shot out of my seat. But of course, rather like the mega thrill rides in theme parks, and which these pieces seem to echo, much of the sensation is based on anticipation and once the metaphorical wheels are in motion you are there for the duration. That said, there is always the option to abandon your post before things really get going.
I can’t really do much by way of conventional reviewing without spoiling the experience. Apart from initially there’s nothing to see though the detail is well thought out and the settings certainly help the immersive feel of the pieces. No actors appear – at least in the normal way of things. It is the sound design which consistently thrills.
Indeed for the first few minutes of the first piece (Coma) I was absolutely convinced that someone was standing next to me in the gangway and bending over me as I lay helpless, even though another part of my brain kept repeating that this was absolutely impossible. Eulogy, the newest piece, I found less satisfactory than the others, as the narrative line was a bit of a tangle and it was all rather repetitive.
Easily the best of the trio was Flight which is enough to put you off ever boarding a plane again. You are on the sky ride from hell (or more accurately a simultaneously realised duo of rides) in a stunningly recreated economy cabin complete with reclining seats, safety belts, a preflight video and those other staples of commercial air travel the clanking drinks trolley, the passenger constantly blocking an aisle and regularly screaming infants. Worse than these though are the dawning realisation that you may never get out alive. One of my fellow “travellers” mentioned to me that he was due to go on a plane the next day – I wonder if he made it.