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A CurtainUp London London Review
Going Dark

You might think you can’t see very far at night, but when the Earth turns us away from the dazzling light of the Sun, we have a chance to peer into the universe.  — Max
Determined ushers squeeze the last audience member into the cramped and darkened room located off an alleyway around the back of the Young Vic. It’s all quite comic as I contemplate potential lawsuits based on accidental and inappropriate touching. Then what little light there was disappeared and the promise of Going Dark had been fulfilled. Short scenes illuminated by small spotlights, upward projections and a children’s nightlight punctuate the darkness, shedding specks of light on a story of blindness and the limits of sight.

Max (John Mackay) is an astronomer lecturing on the mythology of constellations and formation of the universe. He begins by posing a question to the attentive audience/lecture students: how far can we see? He points to stars in our Milky Way and even another galaxy, Andromeda. Massive explosions from millions of light years away still twinkle into our retina even though they’ve long since blinked out of existence.

It’s all quite pleasant and sparkly, brilliantly lit like a London Planetarium presentation (before it became a Marvel 4D film of course). But there is domestic trauma underpinning Max’s lectures — he is going blind. Retinitis Pigmentosa is causing difficulty with night vision and his periphery, while Charles Bonnet Syndrome is causing him to hallucinate, only adding to his anxiety. Max is also a single parent to a child (Leo) who is heard but not seen — an interesting reversal of the old adage. He fails to properly communicate his deteriorating sight to his son, while his parents on the end of a phone, a professional on the end of a phone, and an employer on the end of a phone seem of little help. Just think of Brian Cox-lite* having a breakdown.

The lighting by Guy Hoare is wonderful — clever projections of the Milky Way, the Sun, optical illusions and photographs erupt from the central table. In many ways the show hangs off the fun of what tricks will be pulled out next. The staging by directors Mark Espiner and Dan Jones of Sound&Fury deals very well with a tight in-the-round audience, making sure they share every little moment. But sound, also from Jones, is a little heavy handed; if they wanted the other senses to be heightened (as they say in their programme), then cranking up the volume with crashing sound effects and horror-style tension is perhaps not the best way to demonstrate this. 

Sound&Fury’s first show was performed in total darkness, and since then they have pushed the envelope of experiential theatre, right up to the recent and highly praised Kursk which recreated a sinking submarine. There are some excellent techniques on display here and sole actor John Mackay pulls off a very difficult role, but the story remains a tad incomplete at best, and insensitive at worst. There are few redemptive moments for Max, making it feel like the narrative is on one depressing trajectory (like a doomsday meteorite that Bruce Willis would have to save us from). 

Both myself, and a friend who went to see this have experience of visual impairment in the family, and we both felt it was overly negative. Had our blind friends attended that night, not only would they have missed out on the experience of being “blind” (by which I mean they switch off the lights and ask the audience to use their ears instead — a bit redundant if you already can’t see), but they would probably leave feeling awful about their condition.

I don’t necessarily want to criticise the show for not being something else, but if “blindness” is the issue there are so many things to say about how society treats the blind, rather than watching one rather angry and socially inept man fall apart. If it was about “life, the universe and everything”, it was a bit simple for the post-Cox age of enlightenment. Going Dark was not without its charms, but its assessment of what makes a good story was a touch shortsighted.  *Note from editor: Brian Cox, not the actor but a British BBC television physicist who has brought science and astronomy to the masses in highly watchable programmes.

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Going Dark
Written by Hattie Naylor in collaboration with Sound&Fury
Directed by Mark Espiner and Dan Jones

Starring: John Mackay
Design: Aleš Valášek
Sound: Dan Jones
Lighting: Guy Hoare
Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7922 2922 
Booking to 24th March 2012
Reviewed by Tim Macavoy based on 8th February 2012 performance at Young Vic, 66 The Cut, Waterloo, London SE1 8LZ (Rail/Tube: Waterloo/Southwark) 

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