I tend to like theatre when it attempts to do something a bit different from the usual format of putting a bunch of people onstage – or these days in front of a camera. That’s not to say that I don’t like that too but there’s something about adding an extra dimension to proceedings which really makes those sorts of shows stand out. It’s something that Alan Ayckbourn is particularly good at in pieces such as The Norman Conquests, Intimate Exchanges and House And Garden. All of these are multi-part plays in which layers of time and space are important to the unfolding action and the audiences are drawn into watching events from a variety of perspectives. Sometimes dubbed “event theatre”, a rather more compact version has reached the airwaves courtesy of binaural immersive audio supremos Darkfield who released their first Darkfield Radio trilogy last year.
Simply called Knot, this is a three-part play which requires the listener to be at a specified (though general) location at a certain time, then to connect to an app and let Darkfield do the rest. This is site specific theatre taken to the next level. Thus it was that at 2pm yesterday I found myself sitting on a park bench, headphones on, eyes tight shut as instructed, awaiting developments.
A soothing voice introduces the idea that everything is going to be rather fluid, that reality and the narrative are going to be fused and the story, if it can be called that, begins. Top tip: sit on the left hand end of the bench and make sure your headphones are on the right way round because a woman is going to sit next to you and talk about what is happening in their life. This is far from clear but seems to involve a box, a meeting and a sense of foreboding. The dialogue is punctuated by other minor incidents (a child’s voice, bicycles passing) all of which seem natural to the location but which have significance – mentally store these away for later. At the end of the section a car pulls up and you are firmly asked to get in.
This was my cue to relocate for part two which took place at the top of the next hour and had me sitting in the front passenger seat of my car with a seat belt on. You are taken on “a journey” with the driver’s voice to your right and a third figure apparently seated behind you. They too are obsessed with a box (THE box) but don’t seem too sure whether they have yet picked it up or not and whether they are on the way to a meeting or on their way from a meeting.
There’s a phone call with the woman in the park which only deepens the central mystery. Part three (by now it was 4.00 pm) occurs in “the largest room in your house” sitting on a chair as the other characters drink tea and form a circle for a discussion. This is the oft mentioned meeting though soon it turns into a bizarre ritual with participants intoning apparently significant phrases (which goes on for far too long) as the drama comes to a conclusion.
Except that it doesn’t – the clue as to why is in the title. A knot is an intricate shape with no discernible beginning and end which loops backwards and forwards through itself to become an apparently systematic tangle. That’s what we have in this play and the audience member is ensnared in the middle as events repeat and wind round themselves such that there seems to be no means of escape. It is difficult to say what Glen Neath’s script is all about as it forms an apparently random, though in fact intricately plotted experience which still borders on the plain silly; so, my advice is not to try. Concentrate instead on the actual experience which is thoroughly enjoyable. David Rosenberg’s sound design is superb with lashings of intricate detail which enhance the aural dimension of the chosen locations; the rain supposedly falling on the car roof top had me taking a sneaky peek to see if the weather had actually turned. And the placement of the voices through the use of binaural sound can be shiver inducing. In the end, though – not that there is one – you will almost certainly be baffled. Viola’s famous line from Twelfth Night: “It is too hard a knot for me t’untie” comes to mind. And I suspect that is exactly the outcome which Darkfield is aiming for.