The Nutcracker, Nuffield Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

As Chris Thorpe acknowledged while discussing Northern Stage’s Christmas show, there is something about this time of year that feels intimately tied up with stories. Whether it is fairytales, stories of Santa or the tale of the nativity itself, the festive season is drenched in narrative. The story chosen for this year’s family show at the Nuffield Theatre is one so familiar that it has become part of the cultural fabric of Christmas, but the creative team have approached it from a slightly less familiar angle. A play with songs rather than the well known ballet, this is a Nutcracker with no Sugarplum Fairy and rather more back story, taking its lead from ETA Hoffman’s original tale.

Unfortunately, the story is the very element that lets this production down. Here, young Clara’s journey into the Land of Sweets and the central battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King occupy only a fraction of the stage time, the greater portion of which is taken up by exposition and scene-setting. The darker elements of Hoffman’s short story are welcome antidotes to what can be a queasily saccharine tale, but their incorporation into Hattie Naylor and Paul Dodgson’s script is decidedly laboured. We find out plenty about the curse of the Nutcracker and how he came to be the enemy of the wicked Mouse King, but all in a series of scenes that play out like an extended prologue. The first act ends beautifully, with an image to send chills down the spines of the children in the audience, but there is a niggling feeling that it is only just getting to the heart of the narrative.

This adaptation is also one that suffers from something of an identity crisis. The conventions of audience interaction are called upon early on, as the performers enter through the auditorium and talk to the kids on the way, but from this point onwards the piece is torn between fourth wall storytelling and pantomime style involvement. The narrator figure is an odd fit with the rest of the show, while the recruiting of the audience to hurl foam balls during the battle scene – while undeniably great fun – jars awkwardly with the action that has preceded it. Neither simple storytelling exercise nor riotous panto romp, The Nutcracker wants to be both at once, but struggles to knit the two genres successfully together.

There is, however, a fair sprinkling of magic in Blanche McIntyre’s production. The opening scene is a delight, pulling out all the tricks of the stage to establish a mood of enchantment and wide-eyed wonder, while raising several gasps from its young audience in the process. These moments of dazzled awe are the most rewarding, reminding adults as well as children just how magical theatre can be. Rhys Jarman’s design does a lot of the legwork, offering a series of charming transformations, while the cast bring an infectious energy to the range of roles they are asked to adopt throughout the twisting narrative.

The production is at its best when playful, whether that is the deliciously hammed up villainy of the Mouse King or the cheekily self-aware conclusion. At the end, the characters leave us deliberately in doubt about the nature of what we have seen, embracing the more uncertain and dreamlike qualities of Hoffman’s tale. Implicit in this ending is a question about stories themselves – why we tell them, what they mean to us, and when they become real. It is only a shame that it takes this long for the storytelling to come into its own.

Going Dark, Young Vic Theatre

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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.