Thursday, January 22, 2015

'Theatre Ad Infinitum: Light' at the Barbican Centre, 21st January 2015

Dystopian cyberpunk mime theatre? Sign me the hell up. When I read about Light, described as "blending anime-style storytelling and a pulsating soundscape"" I couldn't get a ticket fast enough. I always enjoy science fiction theatre; it's difficult enough to realise a fantasy world in cinema, let alone on stage. So companies that take up the challenge tend to be of the ambitious, experimental and bold variety.

Those qualities apply in spades to Theatre Ad Infinitum's Light, but sadly they don't add up to a particularly enjoyable experience. Staged in the depths of The Pit - the Barbican's deepest theatre - we're utterly entombed in concrete. Down here nothing gets in, not the sounds of the traffic, not phone network signals and certainly not a ray of sunlight. As we begin we're plunged into pitch darkness and tossed forward in time to an Orwellian nightmare.

This is future of interconnectivity between humanity, where thoughts can be tossed between skulls as easily as sending a text message. These wonder implants might have once had the potential to unite us in empathy, but they're been appropriated by an authoritarian government to police the thoughts of the citizenry. It's now illegal not to be implanted; the memories, desires, dreams and ambitions of every person filtered through state surveillance.

Our hero is Agent Petrus, charged with hunting down those who've had their implants removed, torturing those he captures and working his way up the ladder to the terrorist's leader. It's a stressful job and adding to his woes is that he's the son of the Glorious Leader, who considers him a disappointment in failing to stamp out the resistance. But things are soon to change for Petrus as he discovers the true nature of his world, the past those in power would rather keep hidden and some dark family secrets.

In every respect this is dark stuff; from the crushing misery of the futuristic surveillance state to the literal darkness we're enveloped in. Told entirely through mime (with dialogue on surtitles above) the primary methods of communication are motion and light. This is extremely minimalist theatre; what's on stage pared right back to the bone. Characters wear identical black jumpsuits and move between pools of torchlight, the scenery created through a couple of strips of LEDs held in different configurations. 

It's undeniably visually striking, the lack of detail allowing us to imagine a future far more detailed than anything a production designer could cook up. There's a film-noir aesthetic to the hunts and interrogations; the cast's faces uplit to create a sinister chiaroscuro effects. A dry ice haze that hangs over the stage makes for a literally dense atmosphere, allowing the performers to remain invisible so long as they're not directly in the light. This means they can sinisterly loom from anywhere, fostering appropriate levels of paranoia. Perhaps most cleverly, this technique also allows the company to 'edit' their play like you would a film. In dream sequences we can 'cut' from the dreamer to seeing what's inside his mind, giving the piece an expansive, spontaneous quality that's difficult to capture 'live'.

So with all that going for it, how can Light not be that great? Well, once you've gotten over being thrilled by the novel aesthetics there's not much else to fixate on. The show lasts about an hour, but you'll have seen practically every trick it has to offer after about fifteen minutes. It quickly transpires that no matter how imaginatively you use two strips of LEDs, a couple of torches and some red gels you're limiting yourself.

This leaves the story to hold our attention. On paper it's a pretty straightforward sci-fi tale, but the lack of spoken dialogue makes it next to impossible to empathise with the characters and often makes it pretty tricky to even follow what's going on. Not to mention that the structure is a little wonky, the hero disappearing from the plot in favour of a lengthy flashback sequence. There's a tension between the symbology of the piece (having the characters communicating only by electronic text is entirely appropriate) and the actual enjoyment of watching it.

If this were half an hour long I'd be singing its praises to the heavens. But, as pretty as it frequently is, fatigue rapidly sets in. Light is technically and politically excellent, containing some wonderful imagery and imagination, but just can't quite sustain its aesthetic high-wire act, so I was disappointed when I realised I'd ever-so-gradually become a bit bored.

Light is at the Barbican Centre until 24th January. Returns only.

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