The theatre-goers guide to the galaxy: Going Dark at the Young Vic

Saturday 15th December 2012

Sound and Fury are a theatre company with an interesting mission.  Instead of providing spectacle, they tend to immerse their audiences in total darkness.  It’s not often nowadays that you visit the theatre and don’t have to worry about sight lines or whether the set will be any good, and the exhortation to switch off mobile phones as ‘any light ruins the show’ is also a first for us.  As we edge our way to our seats, guided only by dim spotlights under them, we are already in a different world and our senses are on high alert.  The dark setting is significant on many levels.  Practically, this is the story of a planetarium presenter, so the darkness is necessary for the lectures which intersperse the action.  Yet it also works on a sensory and metaphorical level as well.  Early on, we are told that if you want to look at the andromeda galaxy it is best to use your peripheral vision, as it is very dim, and your peripheral vision is better for seeing at night.  Similarly the minimal lighting and the way the show is performed, with one actor creating a whole world of relationships, invites us to take an oblique view of the biggest question of all: why are we here?

The story revolves around the central character, played John Mackay, who discovers that he is going to go blind, and what follows is an exploration of his fears and hopes, and an invitation for us to think about what is really important.  At the same time he narrates stories of the universe which is itself ‘going dark’, ie, stars are rushing away from each other so that their light will no longer be visible.  You scarcely notice that Mackay is the only actor ‘on stage’ because he is brings so many other characters to life – his worried Dad on the phone, his optician, and in an ingenious touch, his child, whose voice is heard through pre-recorded dialogue.  Whilst this might sound unspontaneous, the dialogue between them sounds surprisingly natural.  Half the child’s speech is barely intelligible, but this doesn’t really matter – it helps to reinforce the illusion that we are eavesdropping.

The telling of the story seems to deliberately avoid the usual clichés in ‘human interest’ drama, and although the main character fears many things, there is neither realisation nor resolution of these fears at the end.  The beauty of the piece is the stillness which is creates, allowing us to muse, not just about the vastness of the universe but the degree to which vision and perception are constructs of the brain in which we trust, and through which we somehow strive for meaning.  Scientists make predictions about what is going on in the universe as much by what they cannot see as what they can.  So black holes were first postulated, then proved to exist through the behaviour of other objects around them.  Similarly the father, by trying to shield his son from the truth, telegraphs to him that something is wrong through his inexplicable changes in behaviour.

This form of story-telling is remarkably versatile and ultimately memorable and performed with great technical skill and humour by John Mackay.  Whether he is talking about the vastness of the universe, demonstrating the compression of gases using tissue paper, or trying to make his son’s lunch blindfolded (he nearly manages it with one crucial error), we are with him all the way – and wondering what we would do in the same situation.  Like the main mythical character Dhruva, an Indian boy who meditates so intensely that he is turned into the pole star by the God Vishnu with all this followers around him, we are invited to meditate, if only briefly, on how we see and experience the world.

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