The audience of The Basement Tapes descends (literally – the show is in a basement) into an intensely private world. A young woman (Stella Reid) sifts through the property of her recently deceased grandmother. Ostensibly, she is sorting and clearing it, but little seems to really get moved. Instead, she plays, she dances, she wafts the broken radio around like a lightsabre, she invents an improv game with an old cookbook and generally makes her own personal variety show from the basement’s heirloom menagerie.
I would have happily watched Reid’s one-woman object comedy for an entire hour. But this is not the hour that The Basement Tapes ultimately gives us. Instead, a narrative emerges. The protagonist happens upon some old cassette tapes. On some of them her grandmother is speaking (an extraordinary, chilling vocal performance by Marjorie McKee), telling a story that has not previously been shared with the family. From here, the show really launches into itself, becoming ever more intriguing and strange with each new oblique clue and macabre revelation.
There are two shows at Summerhall this Fringe about lone women sorting through the posthumous contents of other people’s houses. Just as The Basement Tapes reaches its denouement each day, Molly Taylor’s Extinguished Things starts its audience on a similar journey just 100 meters away. The two plays even share some common themes: delayed adolescence, childlessness, legacy.
But, despite these remarkably similar premises, the two pieces make very different offers to, and demands of, their audiences. Extinguished Things makes its meanings very explicit: it tells its audience this is what happened and this is what you should believe about it. Whereas The Basement Tapes places the search for meaning onto the audience. It leaves a lot of dots for us to join. Very little is repeated, and when it is, the meaning is often altered. We have to listen carefully.
Another difference is the kinds of realities in which the two plays exist. Extinguished Things presents an essentially materialist interpretation of reality, where life cycles – and even memory – reside primarily in physical, material stuff. The basis of reality in The Basement Tapes is much less fixed: it is a creation of consciousness and belief, constantly shifting and contorting. What exactly is going on – and even whose reality the audience experience – never settles until right at the end.
This means that The Basement Tapes works tremendously as a thriller because the tension never diminishes. In fact, it continues to hold your attention long after it has finished, as you piece together both its meaning and the way that meaning permeates back through the piece and forces you to re-evaluate all that you have just witnessed.
Like everything in this intriguing, confounding play, its genre is difficult to pin down: experimental horror, playful object theatre, subtle psychodrama, tense thriller. And that’s just Side A. Watching The Basement Tapes, you always feel that something else is going on, running in another direction, if you could somehow only turn the tape over.
The Basement Tapes is on at Summerhall until 26 August 2018. Click here for more information.