Friday, February 22, 2019

Review: 'Séance' & 'Flight' at VAULT Festival, 21st February 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars 

Are you scared of the dark? Claustrophobic? Prone to fits of terror? 

These are the questions posed as you enter Darkfield's twin 20 minute shows Séance and Flight. Both of them take place in pitch darkness, both take place in shipping containers and both are sonic performances using binaural recordings to tell their story. 

I've long had a soft spot for theatre that plunges the audience into darkness. The best I've seen was Lulu Raczka's A Girl In School Uniform (Walks Into A Bar)which incorporated disorientating blackouts into its post-apocalyptic plot, but I've enjoyed several shows (many of which have used the subterranean tunnels of Leake Street) which use the technique. 

Darkness is a powerful way to heighten the audience's senses and give their imaginations a nudge. Deprived of visual stimulation, the brain fills in the gaps and whatever you conjure up in your mind's eye is guaranteed to be more terrifying and impressive than whatever a small-scale theatre company with limited means can put on stage. 

Without giving too much of the game away, Séance sits its audience around a long table, gives them a pair of headphones and instructs that no matter what happens, they must keep their hands on the table at all times or spooky and bad things will happen. As the lights go out, the supernatural plays its hand as an ominous soundscape plays out and a strange man whispers mysterious things in our ears.

Flight opens with a deeply impressive set that perfectly recreates the interior of a jet. In fact, I think it actually is the interior of the jet. This experience takes you on a very strange trip in which the fabric of reality is first torn, then eventually breaks apart completely. The headphone track is combined with some alarming bass rumbling to simulate turbulence, and you viscerally sense the plane's engines being pushed to their limit. If you're scared of flying I'd maybe give it a miss.

If you're torn between the two shows, my recommendation is to go for Flight. Séance wasn't bad, but it's a surface-level exploration of the occult and, if you've seen any kind of seance in any other media, you can quickly figure out where this one's going. The binaural recordings in both shows successfully create the illusion of a three-dimensional soundscape around you in both shows, but in Séance things get a little wobbly as you know that the soundscape cannot physically fit within the performance space.

It works much more successfully in Flight, partly because the audience is familiar with the bing-bong announcement sounds and rattling equipment of aeroplanes. When someone whispers in your ear in Flight, it's all too easy to imagine them leaning over the back of the seat to quiz you. Plus, the simple tactile feel of the leather seat and the moulded plastic walls go a hell of a long way to making you feel very, very far from a tunnel in central London. (They also do something very cool with a curtain that I won't spoil).

Having said all that and despite being very impressed by the binaural technical stuff, neither Séance nor Flight genuinely engaged me. They are both very interesting experiences and I have no regrets about attending, but I didn't have much of an emotional response them other than enjoying sinking back into the inky, relaxing gloom.

Séance (tickets here) runs until 17 March and Flight (tickets here) runs until 27 February. Both are at VAULT Festival.

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