The visionaries who are taking a leap in the dark

The ultimate total-theatre show comes to the Young Vic

Michael Coveney
Wednesday 07 March 2012 01:00 GMT
Out of this world: John Mackay as Max in 'Going Dark'
Out of this world: John Mackay as Max in 'Going Dark'

Shakespeare and Beckett are the great dramatists of light, dark and blindness, but only one theatre company, Sound&Fury, which sculptures light and sound, is devoted exclusively to the philosophy of sensory deprivation. Its latest work, Going Dark, written by Hattie Naylor, is the story of an astronomer losing his sight in a planetarium.

That one-line summary already suggests a host of metaphorical layers. As the universe expands, so there are elements in it that we will never see, light that will never reach us. So, while the astronomer in the play, Max, played by the Scottish RSC actor John Mackay, is going blind, so, analogously, the universe itself is going dark.

Sound&Fury is a specialist in what is handily known as "immersive" theatre, its core personnel comprising two brothers, Tom and Mark Espiner, and their friend from schooldays at Bristol Cathedral School, Dan Jones, a composer and sound designer.

It is interested in making theatre in which each component – light, sound, space, actor and audience – is of an equal, and interactive, importance. An audience of 100 will be seated inside the planetarium with Max, while 12 speakers move the sound around inside the space, which is defined by square scaffolding and black drapes. The sound includes the voice of Max's six-year-old son, who is trying to make contact with his father.

"What we discovered with our first piece, 10 years ago, Christopher Logue's War Music," says Mark Espiner, "which was set in total darkness, is that you can invite an audience to make imaginative leaps. It's what I love about theatre, and what I loved about, for instance, my first Complicité show, The Winter's Tale, which thrived on the exciting simplicity of taking that journey together with the actors."

That first collaboration caught the attention of the late neuro-psychologist Richard Gregory (author of Eye and Brain), who remarked on how interested he was in the way images occurred to him, and indeed the audience, with no optical input.

Gregory, who advised on the early stages of Going Dark, pointed them towards Touching the Rock by John Hull, the autobiography of a man going gradually blind over 30 years.

Such matters have intrigued Peter Brook and Jonathan Miller in our theatre, and Sound&Fury seems be taking its investigations even further. Jones says that you allow the audience their point of view as a painter, or sculptor, might: "I do think this relates to Peter Brook's ethos in The Empty Space, that you're feeding the work from the middle rather than trying to create an image from the outside."

Other such reverberating, experimental work since War Music includes The Watery Part of the World, their "take" on Moby-Dick; Ether Frolics, an exploration, and in part history of, anaesthesia; and last year's Kursk, a deeply moving and involving "experience" set on board a British submarine as it heads towards the stricken Russian nuclear submarine, Kursk, in the Barents Sea.

But the roots of Sound&Fury lie in the experimental bazaar of the Battersea Arts Centre where Tom Morris (best known today for co-directing War Horse) curated a "Theatre in the Dark" season in which War Music was a key production.

"Everything we do is part of the question, how do you write a play?" says Mark. "There is the edge of a table and the playwright who can write a play, and that's brilliant. That's one way of doing theatre. Another way, our way, is to bring in the other stuff, too. And we have a process that is molten right up to the performance."

'Going Dark', Young Vic, London SE1 (020 7922 2922; to 24 March

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