Time for lights-out at Invisible College

Primitive Science have staged their new play in the dark. Madeleine North feels her way
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The Independent Culture

And for their latest trick, Britain's maverick visual theatre company, Primitive Science, will perform their new piece entirely in the dark. For the company's artistic directors, Marc von Henning and Boz Temple-Morris, this state of affairs poses no apparent contradiction. "Hopefully what you will see, as it were," explains Temple-Morris, the more hirsute and loquacious of the pair, "is far more splendid than anything we can build and show." Von Henning, who prefers to punctuate his partner's comments with contemplative, sometimes wilfully cryptic remarks, adds: "I would contest the term "visual" applies only to physical states. A text can be very visual; a metaphor; an idea. Quite unironically, we're saying this is our most visual piece."

And for their latest trick, Britain's maverick visual theatre company, Primitive Science, will perform their new piece entirely in the dark. For the company's artistic directors, Marc von Henning and Boz Temple-Morris, this state of affairs poses no apparent contradiction. "Hopefully what you will see, as it were," explains Temple-Morris, the more hirsute and loquacious of the pair, "is far more splendid than anything we can build and show." Von Henning, who prefers to punctuate his partner's comments with contemplative, sometimes wilfully cryptic remarks, adds: "I would contest the term "visual" applies only to physical states. A text can be very visual; a metaphor; an idea. Quite unironically, we're saying this is our most visual piece."

Theatre Dream, their contribution to this year's British Festival of Visual Theatre at London's Battersea Arts Centre, concerns an actor who wakes up in the wings of a theatre having missed his cue. He has slept through one play, but at night, he discovers, a troupe of ghosts takes over the auditorium, and he is plunged into a phantasmal drama. For the audience, it is meant to be a disorienting, dream-like experience, engaging all the senses bar sight.

The idea first came to light, so to speak, in the BAC's 1998 Playing in the Dark season and, for von Henning, it represents his concept of perfect theatre: "it happens at night without humans, it's very difficult to get into, tickets are very rare and you can only stumble into it by means of your own displeasure." He is only half joking. The duo have a running gag that a person from "the Invisible College" performed "a piece of diabolical magic" on them which means that if they ever decided to call it a day, a terrible curse would blight their lives. It's a charming get-out clause if ever I've heard one. "Well, we didn't want people to think we were authors of our own destiny," von Henning quips.

Primitive Science first formed in 1994. Their policy was to eschew the works of playwrights in favour of material - be it a painting or fable - which hadn't been created with performance in mind. There was Vagabondage in 1998, a piece based on a Jorge Luis Borges story which led one critic to conclude, "with such ravishing imagery, who cares what it means?" and a year later, Icarus Falling, an arrestingly beautiful meditation on Bruegel's depiction of the cautionary legend. More recently, Poseidon turned Greek myth into a contemporary revenge story.

"We do tend to work from a detail outwards," says von Henning, "rather than have a concept and work inwards, which is a very different process. We'll spend quite a lot of time getting one movement right." The result is consistently stimulating drama, which, while treading a delicate path between pretentious twaddle and borderline genius, refreshingly challenges our concept of what theatre is all about.

In Theatre Dream, a voice in the dark instructs the audience to carry out certain tasks. It's a device fellow visual theatre pioneers Complicite used in their last piece, Mnemonic (although the pair are adamant that their philosophy differs radically from the more mainstream Complicite's). For Temple-Morris, it is a matter of coaxing activity (physical, verbal and mental) from an audience accustomed to a degree of passivity. "The normal contract of a theatre is broken with this piece. Usually, we work and you watch but with this it doesn't work like that. You also do things. As soon as you break that contract," he points out, "audiences begin to behave very differently."

It is hard to imagine these two booking seats for the latest Alan Ayckbourn or David Hare, but they refuse to be so easily pigeonholed. "I get very annoyed when people say, 'Oh, you won't like this piece, it's got words in it,'" Temple-Morris retorts. But asked to reveal their idols, names like Piña Bausch and the Woosters come top of the list, with not a Stoppard or Frayn in sight.

"My personal view of what theatre does best," says Temple-Morris, "is a) the visual element and b) the live element. So two people talking to each other in a long wordy discourse about particle physics, or whatever ... somehow a novel does this better for me." Theatre "comes crashing down into tedium" he says, when the common bond of humanity is lost in favour of an intellectual idea.

Some would grumble that Primitive Science have gone too far in the other direction, drowning meaning in their dense imagery. The boys will eloquently argue that they are trying to "shift perspective". But the pair remain humorously enigmatic. "We're just being wilfully mysterious," Temple-Morris grins. Long may the Invisible College inveigle them into doing so.

'Theatre Dream' opens the British Festival of Visual Theatre at BAC, SW11 (020 7223 2223), Fri to 21 Oct

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