Reykjavík

South Street Arts Centre, 21 – 22 January 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Take a number with your ticket. Move through to the bar. The number corresponds to a hooded white coverall, like the ones forensics officers wear at the scene of a crime. Put on the suit, keep the accompanying goggles handy and await further instructions.

Audiences experiencing Jonathan Young’s autobiographical one-man show Reykjavík go through all this before the show even begins. It’s a piece of theatre – “play” is too conventional a term – that experiments visibly and self-consciously with concepts of audience and performer, performance space, and performance itself.

This very short run at Reading’s South Street Arts Centre is only a first draft, so the performance is packed with experimental technical and performative tricks which may or may not make it into the finalised piece, which will run in the autumn.

The white coveralls, for example, serve the same function as Punchdrunk’s masks, homogenising the audience but differentiating them from the performers. Here, though, they also disguise the stage crew, and feed one of Young’s many metaphors – he is piecing together his time in Reykjavík as a forensic scientist might, from half-forgotten images and scraps of information, and so are we.

The narrative, such as it is, is relatively simple: in 1999, Young spent several months in Reykjavík, Iceland, attempting to form a lasting relationship with a recently separated mother of two he met in Paris. He failed, and moved on.

But Young tells the story in fragments, images, moments and feelings, presented episodically and out of chronology. Lights, sheets, projected images, a few small props and the audience help sketch in the rough outlines of his experiences.

A pair of swimming goggles, some sound effects, some physical theatre, two overlaid projections and a crewmember with a bit of scrim effectively conjure up Young’s dip in a hot spring, in one of the more successful images of the night.

But the simplest and simultaneously most striking experiment is the representation of a car accident Young had while driving in thick mist. We’re asked to put on our goggles, whose lenses are deliberately fogged, and the crash is suggested with red and white lights and surround sound, while we all freeze, blind and scared to move an inch.

We’re never allowed to remain immersed for long. Young’s narration is carefully detached, though the story is deeply personal. He refers to himself in the third person as “Y” (he’s known in Reykjavík as “Yonatan”) and his lover as “S”. His delivery is smooth and dreamlike. The technical equipment that creates each scenario remains visible, reminding us constantly of the setting’s artificiality.

There is as little resolution as there is narrative, but the feeling we’re left with is that Young was driven away by Reykjavík’s extremes – extreme darkness and light, hot and cold, and finally that blinding mist.

Overall, this early incarnation of Reykjavík feels less like a cohesive piece of performance than a testing ground for technical and performative trickery. It’s captivating throughout, but delight in the never-ending sequence of clever gimmicks can distract a little from Young’s heartfelt meditations on love, forgetting and inevitability.

Hopefully what Young will do now is use these previews to judge which tricks best serve their respective scenes without providing a distraction, hone the whole thing more finely and return in the autumn with a more balanced version of this promising show.

Written by Jonathan Young

Crew includes Carolina Valdés (director), Paul Burgess (scenography and video), Adrienne Quartly (sound designer), Anna Watson (lighting designer) and Beccy Smith (dramaturg)

Cast includes Jonathan Young

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