Feast, Young Vic Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

“A person who does not know his own ancestors does not know his own grandchildren.” One of many small wisdoms passed from mouth to mouth during this patchwork celebration of Yoruba culture, these words are a fitting epigraph for a piece of theatre deeply concerned with identity and its roots in past, present and future. There is a profound sense that for those who are born into this culture, being aware of one’s past is integral to the hybrid cultural identity one forges in the modern world. Co-written by five playwrights from the USA, Cuba, Brazil, Nigeria and Britain, brought together as part of World Stages London, the creation and structure of the piece is an appropriately diverse and fragmented reflection of the Yoruba diaspora, a culture scattered across and filtered through four different continents. It’s a feast in which flavours clash, complement and blend.

The scraps of scenes from the production’s five writers are loosely stitched together by the recurring presence of four Orishas, Yoruba deities, who appear and reappear in the form of fictional characters from across the past 300 years of Yoruba history. The three female Orishas Yemaja, Oshun and Oya, associated with motherhood, beauty and war respectively, are followed through the ages by Esu, a mischievous, chaos-courting shape-shifter who perpetually straddles the crossroads. Among the snatches we are shown from this huge swathe of history are a vignette on the impact of slave liberation in Brazil, a snapshot of the American civil rights movement and a post-Olympics scene featuring a young British athlete – more fleeting moments than scenes, tiny splinters broken off a story too huge to begin telling.

Conceptually, the shape of the whole is fitting. Any attempt to take a holistic view of a history and a culture that is characterised by its variety would be reductive and misguided; instead this consciously incomplete and fractured image mirrors the dispersed and many times translated and transmuted tradition that it depicts. The resistance to unifying narratives also speaks of a distrust of written history, a history that often – as in the production’s layered projections – writes over its subjects. This project instead attempts to capture something of the oral history that has passed down through generations and across continents, a history focused on storytelling rather than the imposed tyranny of facts. Unfortunately, the delicate fabric of the stories themselves is often not substantial enough to support the ambition of the piece as a whole, with scenes feeling broken or truncated, their jagged edges jammed awkwardly together.

Perhaps because of such difficulties, the production is at its strongest when most reliant on its dazzling visual elements. The slow, mournful dance that narrates the journey of slaves across the Atlantic through the bodies of the performers, upon whose torsos prices are starkly projected and who gradually slip between curtains lit with maps and names, disappearing into their own history, speaks louder than any of the contrived and sometimes clumsy scenes peppered elsewhere. Another powerful moment features a female dancer tugged from side to side, hands snatching at her body and covering her mouth, a physical expression of the violence implicit in being silenced. It is also the visual and aural that lend the show its most joyous moments, offering vivid, celebratory bursts of song and dance.

Of all the striking images that thread their way through this meandering production, one stubbornly repeats again and again, imprinting itself on the eye. As the trickster Esu guides us through the complex tangle of cultural history, he frequently shifts shape behind sliding panels, a slick bit of stagecraft that is tightly married to the questions of identity that the piece keeps returning to. Because if this show is about anything in the sprawling, amorphous history of Yoruba, it is about shape-shifting, both voluntary and enforced, and about how acts of transformation affect not only a culture or belief system, but also the equally complex individuals within them.

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.