Before you enter the Maria studio at the Young Vic for Sound & Fury’s Going Dark, you leave your bags and coats in the corridor outside. This is because the only light in the auditorium comes from bulbs under the actual seats. The information available to you is the bare minimum: you are able to find somewhere to sit.
Though the seating configuration is in the round, there is no looking at other members of the audience across the room, maybe waving at an acquaintance, having one of those semi-mimed conversations. There is only you, your seat and the darkness around you. You are vaguely aware of other shapes in seats like your own. This might appear gimmicky, it might appear austere, maybe it even seems born out of some desire to punish the audience. The darkness doesn’t explain itself though. It is just darkness and what you feel about it will be entirely dependent on what you feel about that dark, which ultimately says more about you than it does about the show.
When John Mackay is illuminated in a section of the dark room though and the story begins, any concerns that we are going to be treated to some kind of aggressive modernist experiment are rapidly assuaged. Mackay plays Max, a single father and an astronomist who lectures at a planetarium. We first see him as he is shaving and talking to his six-year old son Leo (“played” by a recorded voice).
Almost immediately, Mackay’s performance, Hattie Naylor’s script and the seamlessness of the sound design evoke the physical world of Max’s existence for us in the darkness. During a lecture at the planetarium, Max explains about how little of what we perceive about the visual world is actually derived from what the signals that our retinas receive. The mind is constantly having to make sense of all kinds of information and it uses memory to do this. This is exactly the process the production demands of its audience but it makes its demands with such warmth and generosity so we are happy to let it guide us through the story. It soon emerges that Max is going to have undergo this process himself, as he is rapidly losing his sight.
The gradual deterioration of Max’s sight is the trajectory that we follow throughout the story. We see him desperate to keep hold of the visual world that holds so many wonders for him. The fear of not being able to stare out at the night sky and see another galaxy is nothing though compared to the fear of no longer being able to look after his own son. What scares Leo however is that his father will forget what he looks like. Max knows he never will and the essential truth of this has been demonstrated to the audience by the way in which we have each constructed our own pictures of Leo in our mind’s eyes, as vivid as anything.
This is experimental theatre that wears its seamless technical wizardry very lightly, reminiscent of some of Robert Lepage’s finest solo performances. Like Lepage, Sound & Fury have created something that feels like the work of a magician and fills us with childlike wonder as it tells us a deeply affecting story for grown-ups.