How often do we peer out at complete blackness? This was one of the first thoughts to strike me as the low-level lighting dimmed and the audience was tightly swaddled in darkness at the beginning of Sound&Fury’s latest atmospheric piece. The extent to which the Young Vic’s Maria space has been insulated against external light is astonishing, producing an odd dissociation from surroundings and fellow audience members as we are all plunged into the impenetrable dark. Atomised, we blink out into nothingness, eyes stubbornly seeking shapes that refuse to emerge from the featureless gloom.
In a modern world saturated with light pollution, where we are rarely far from the glowing rectangles of our phones, the simplicity of this utter darkness takes on a startling, almost radical character. It allows the piece to immediately grip us in its inky fist, as well as powerfully propelling us into the interior world of its protagonist. For astronomer Max, the world around him is going dark in more than one way. As the universe steadily expands, the stars with which he has entertained a lifelong affair are gradually losing one another’s light across the vast expanse of the universe, while on a miniature scale his own life is beginning to slip away from him as his sight deteriorates. Physics collides with philosophy and science becomes enmeshed with emotion.
This story of cosmos and crisis is told through the quietly compelling presence of lone actor John Mackay and the evocative, precisely executed audio and visual effects employed by Sound&Fury. Detailed soundscapes flood the darkness, transporting us to bustling train station or rain-sieged garden; the space morphs into a planetarium, its ceiling studded with thousands of pinpricks of light; a developing photograph becomes a canvas for projected memories. Light, when it breaks through the surrounding darkness, has the power to continually surprise, seductively yet elusively snatching at the corners of our attention in the same way as the stars that distantly blink down from the night sky.
For all that Sound&Fury’s technical trickery dazzles, however, it never overwhelms with its own showmanship. Instead, it supports the attractive tension at play in the piece between the intimate and the unimaginably vast, impressing us with wide blankets of stars before the next moment enclosing Mackay in a tiny pool of light. Both narrative and design stage this constricting process, this drawing in of one’s own personal world against the inconceivably huge backdrop of the universe, a process equally conjured by our own individual, insulating cocoons of darkness. That impossible smallness that is felt when contemplating the seemingly endless reaches of space is replicated here, but without undermining the small-scale tragedy of Max’s encroaching blindness.
Like the processes by which stars produce the stuff of existence, every element in Sound&Fury’s production is inextricably wedded to those around it. While Hattie Naylor’s text, for instance, is tender, moving and often poetic in its charting of Max’s loss of sight and the impact this has on his relationship with his young son, it cannot be divorced from the other production elements with which it is intertwined. The father son relationship is lent added poignancy by the physical absence of the son from the stage, simply conjured by a recorded voice; the snatches of astronomy lectures that punctuate the piece rely upon Dick Straker’s projections to produce meaning; the distinct scenes and words of the script are structurally dependent on the wordless interludes that separate them.
As our usual ways of visually experiencing theatre are frustrated or challenged, the aesthetic of the piece forces us to adapt and sharpen our other senses, mirroring the struggle that Max is in the midst of. Seeing, he explains to us, is just a matter of electrical impulses being received by the eye. It is only through the brain that this is translated into understanding, creating a perception of the world that conforms to what we have evolved to need; what we “see” is just a grainy, limited snapshot. Through an intimate focus, Going Dark invites us to accept the limits of our own perception while at the same time asking questions that imagine the much wider picture. The implication is that we, like Max, might need new ways of seeing.