Un/Familiar Fringe: Un/Heard

Written for the London Theatre Blog, 19 August 2009

The fringes of the theatre world are going crazy for headphones. I still think Rotozaza are the only company so far to have come within touching distance of the full potential of the audio-directed form; GuruGuru, which previewed at BAC and is now installed, in revised and improved form, in Edinburgh’s free Forest Fringe venue, is both an accomplished example of the format and a focused interrogation of its implications and potential flaws.

At the BAC, two of the five particpants were short-changed somewhat (if that’s possible in a free show) by being booted out of the proceedings with ten or fifteen minutes left to run; these two now get to return, which diminishes the shock value for the other three, but is much fairer and more inclusive. The scenario is just as weird, but tweaks near the climax have made it, if anything, even more sinister (in my dreams last night I heard a voice, struggling to be heard over a wash of static, warning me “he’s trying to take you over!”).

The full potential of audio-instruction in theatre has yet to be discovered, but GuruGuru’s discussion of determinism and free will (which chimes with chilling resonance when the players in the discussion are themselves deterministically controlled) will surely single it out as a defining early work of the genre.

Also “on the headphones” at this year’s Fringe is David Leddy, who is fast becoming a big name in the Scottish theatre scene. Susurrus sends individuals out into the Royal Botanic Gardens, equipped with mp3 players and headphones à la Wondermart, but is emphatically not audio-instructed theatre. Rather than transforming members of the public into performers, Leddy’s headphones simply insulate them from the outside world and wrap them instead in the drama of Susurrus itself.

The audio element wouldn’t be out of place in Radio 4’s Afternoon Play: inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and puncutated by excerpts from Benjamin Britten’s libretto of that play, it consists of several interwoven monologues that gradually reveal a family drama that spans two generations. What makes Susurrus theatre, rather than radio drama, is that Leddy has nominated a setting (the Botanics) and a route to take around it; each of the eight scenes is associated with a location on the accompanying map.

Though the Botanics feature prominently in the plot, the audio can feel disconnected from the surroundings – largely, I think, because you’re instructed to remain in one location during the monologues, and the action stalls while you move from place to place, so the narrative segments feel like interludes in your own personal journey, rather than inextricably linked to it. Susurrus is another example of the headphone theatre genre’s potential, but only in a purely technical sense; the story it tells is separate from the apparatus used to tell it, while in Rotozaza’s work, the two are one.

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