‘No bags, no coats, no food and drink. It’s 90 minutes without an interval – so go to the loo now because if you need to leave the auditorium, you won’t be readmitted.’ At face value, the warning issued to the queue waiting to get into Bristol Vic Studio for Sound&Fury’s latest touring production seems stern. Then again, if you’ve ever seen or, more accurately, encountered this high-precision, high-tech company before, this won’t come as much of a surprise. Sound&Fury, after all, have produced plays in total darkness (War Music, The Watery Part of the World) and recreated the claustrophobia of a Royal Navy submarine via their immersive – in more ways than one – drama Kursk.
In Going Dark, they turn their attention from the depths of the ocean to the depths of space – and the equally unfathomable depths of the human psyche – via the story of Max, a planetarium announcer whose changing, deteriorating physical circumstances bring him up against both the biggest of big questions (what is reality? what are we really looking at?) and the smallest of domestic minutiae (making his son’s lunchbox, shaving). One minute we’re looking at a scatter of stars across the planetarium ceiling and hearing about the extraordinary, unimaginable speeds at which our planet, our sun and our galaxy are hurtling through the universe; the next we’re overhearing Max talking to his precocious but no-nonsense offspring or on the phone to his own less-than-reassuring parents.
Performed inside a crepuscular tent, using only exquisitely pinpointed lighting and an all- embracing soundscape (and then occasionally dispensing with light altogether), Going Dark is as intriguing an experiment in up-close storytelling as any of Sound&Fury’s previous outings. Whether he’s leaning over a light box, from which he produces various outlandish illusions with the deftness of a magician, or light-heartedly joshing with his son, sole live performer John Mackay is never less than engaging: the smooth-voiced and assured science buff heading for a situation he would never have predicted makes the most of the unusually intimate setting, looming out of the shadows and deploying emotion into a scene with the merest quiver of his voice.
The cosmic science stuff, perhaps, seems a tad bolted on, but you’d have to look to the likes of Robert Lepage and Complicité for a production that switches between the mundane and the universal with such nous and aplomb. Small and confined it may be, but, like a Shostakovich symphony, Going Dark reaches for the absolute limits of our perception before delving back into the trivia of the every day. Somewhere in between its story of a single parent, his son and the darker reaches of perception, there’s an ever-enthralling drama about quantum physics, the Big Bang and the quotidian relativity of experience. Mackay’s pristine performance continually brings it back down to earth. Gloriously illuminating and spectacularly intimate, Going Dark is a mass of fecund contradictions.