Reviews Published 4 December 2020

Review: Double, Visitors and Eternal by Darkfield Radio (online)

Internal logic: James Varney writes on Darkfield’s trilogy audio works, which deliver chills with mixed success.

James Varney
Darkfield's Eternal. Image: Alex Purcell.

Darkfield’s Eternal. Image: Alex Purcell.

//i can leave the point/place i am at/in and i can do it because the alternative might make me feel better/ because the place i am in i am finding it difficult to bear// this is a review of three pieces. I can think of them as a single thing, or as three separate experiences. They’re each twenty minutes long and I listen to them/ perform them/ share them in a single evening.

on my phone. And the first two demand I listen to them with someone else, preferably in the same room but over a video call if you like so over a video call it is.

and and it feels important in the writing of this to try to pin down/unpick what these ‘pieces’ are. That’s a word I’d only use if I’d been exposed to theatre for too long. Anyone blissfully outside the nonsense of theatre would call them plays, no matter how many PhDs might disagree. They’re plays, they’re very small plays. The website calls them ‘immersive audio experiences’ – aha – radio plays.

good, so these radio plays are specifically for two people to listen to together, but separate – because we each listen on our own phones.

so I’ve been here before. This is one-to-one performance, or, or micro audience performance. And it feels really similar to that form of performance, at first. At first it’s like the other small audience shows I’ve been part of, where you often get ushered into a small, dark room. But there isn’t a room. I provide the set. And I close my eyes as I’m told and I can no longer see my partner. And it now, now it only matters that I’m here. I’ve been cut off.

So, in a paragraph:

The Darkfield radio shows tonight are uncannily close to micro-audience shows I’ve seen in the past. But there’s a disconnect. The broadcast may be live, but the performance isn’t – the voices are recorded, the same audio tricks are being played on my head as my partner’s. We finish Visitors and discover we were both cast as the same character – that one feels particularly like a deception. This is, these are, ghosts. I recognise the shimmering outline of a form I used to be able to experience in a physical space. But tonight I am not met with intimacy, I’m reminded of distance. I feel the show cold on my ears, the same frozen thing to every audience member.

//because if you don’t have a lot to say, putting what you do have into an obscure form implies your words mean more than they do// and I bring myself, obviously – obviously, I know I do. You get out of the thing what you put into it. My own bedroom has become so hardline default the space I’m in it’s a wonder these plays can do anything to me. And of course any kind of theatrical experience is a haunting – because I’ve not been near a real theatre in eight months.

still still though I feel there is a disagreement between the form of the plays and the content – the content is the form yeah I know but but ok ok there is an internal contradiction.

in that it didn’t feel necessary to share a space with someone to experience the stories I was told. We were told. And like I say, we felt cheated that we were both treated as the same character in Visitors – that felt cheap. I finished that show having been told my friend had been possessed and killed and I was expecting them to tell me, yes, the show was about them becoming possessed.

but it turns out we were both told our friend had been possessed and killed. So who was that? You have created a separate participant from either of us, whom neither of us know and is already dead.

already dead.

and I only realise now that as I was lying down in my bed to listen to the final play, Eternal, there were other people doing the same. There were other people lying in their own beds, alone in the same way.

but I was never encouraged to connect to other people.

ok. The inconsistency of these Darkfield Radio plays I think is the world it conjures you into. We listen to the plays – in order to do that we have to download the app and put our code in to prove we have a ticket. There’s a lot of participation, action required of us just to get into the show. And then there’s the artifice of a robotic voice announcing that we are connecting to the show. But then once the shows begin the world of them is entirely different – I’m suddenly in a very domestic setting: the kitchen, my living room, or my bed. And the voices are speaking to me, they get very close, they always address me directly and specifically.

simultaneously I am required to be in, and aware of, a familiar setting, but the high fantasy of the set up implies that I’m also in a totally new world. I have to pass through a solid boundary to get into the world of the show, but once I’m in that world I also have to suspend my belief in that boundary, and place myself in the ‘real’ world that precedes the existence of the play.

the message that sends now is that inside the performance I’m in a very specific situation, my home is being invaded, or I am an invader in someone else’s home. I haven’t left the world behind at all. But there’s an undertone that things are not going to plan, or that things aren’t as they seem, that the world cannot be trusted. But I don’t know which world is destabilised – the fictional or real. When I enter the world of the play, am I bringing my home with me? Or am I in a fictional world pretending to be my home? Why have my actions led me through a veil into an identical, fake story-world?

and in, in that sense it doesn’t make sense to me that the setting of these stories is inside my house. My house is familiar; if it is not familiar it is not my house, and so these plays never take place in a domestic space.

Right, second paragraph:

These three radio plays take place both inside my own house and my own head. This exaggerates the feeling of isolation I get from the form. I bring myself and the play happens between my ears. It feels flippant to say but I think if I was sat in a dark room with the audio playing in surround sound rather than headphones the world would have made more sense. The context, to me, of the stories themselves implied that I had entered into a place where I did not fit – either the world around me is hostile or I am a contradiction to the rules of the world. The stories themselves feel tied to the unfamiliarity of place, rely on a destabilisation that wasn’t possible in the way I listened to them.

//because moment to moment place changes and so do you/ only boring people get bored watch the air outside your window and think about how unstable that is, chaotic as anything it’s always moving/ doing it with someone else it didn’t really feel necessary – like i don’t think it really mattered”//

the place I come to is basic. I am confused by the stories’ internal logic. I find it difficult to follow the threads. I think they could be chopped ten minutes shorter so they have less about themselves to explain or extended five minutes to clarify themselves a bit more.

and I don’t dislike them. There’s a lack of world-building? Or world-consideration? In the place the stories are told from and to, in the communication of what the contract is supposed to be between me as listener and these visiting voices who are here to spook me.

but but but the sonic world-building is unmatched. World-placing? The sound of these pieces creates the world, and they know that. The third time my ear is whispered in the impact is less but it’s still brilliant. I can feel that bloke’s breath entering my left ear. I can hear his tongue moving around his mouth. I become whatever mic they taped to the side of a football to record this.

and Eternal feels by far the most successful because the context is a kind of home-invasion, body-snatching, selling-your-soul-for-eternal-life sort of conceit. And I listen to it alone and actually it’s probably the least clear in terms of who this person is supposed to be that I am listening to but the context makes more sense, I am waking up? He is waking up? He’s scared, but he’s checking the house is empty, he’s trying to keep something out of the room but his voice is also outside trying to get in. And I don’t trust him because I don’t know who he is or what he’s trying to get from me. I don’t trust the ghosts in Visitors because they’re ghosts who are trying to possess me and that’s kind of spooky but it’s not creepy in the same way.

the success of Eternal comes from not knowing what the plan is.

its also really really fucking creepy to hear someone’s voice as if it’s at the back of your neck or as if they’re about to stick their tongue in your ear, actually.

and that’s exactly it – Eternal realises that the creepy thing about binaural sound design is that you don’t know what’s real and what isn’t. My housemates are moving about downstairs but so is the narrator in my ear so who the fuck just closed a door, right? The writing has to do less work and ends up being creepier by far.

Wrap it up, third paragraph:

There is a tension between the stories and their own theatricality in Darkfield Radio’s plays. The form whispers in your ear while holding you at arm’s length and Double and Visitors fail to navigate that relationship. Eternal succeeds through being the most disorienting, free of the former two’s attempting to exploit your relationship to a partner. It disorients me using sound, and sound is clearly what Darkfield are best at manipulating. The text and sound design finally work together and tell the same story. In this trilogy, where the text is clearest the story shows itself to be mundane. The ghosts of Visitors ask ‘Shall we go now?’ and then leave. When it came to the end of Eternal, I didn’t believe the narrator had left until the broadcast cut off.

The three Darkfield Radio plays run every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday. More info here.

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James Varney

James is a writer and theatre maker, based in the middle parts of England. He has created work with Daniel Bye, Josh Coates and Lenni Sanders and had work presented at Derby Theatre, The Royal Exchange, Manchester Literature Festival, Live at LICA and Camden People’s Theatre. James enjoys Peanut Butter, DIY Punk and Long Walks On The Beach.

Review: Double, Visitors and Eternal by Darkfield Radio (online) Show Info


Directed by Glen Neath and David Rosenberg

Written by Glen Neath

Cast includes Chris Brett Bailey; Sonia Seva & Greer Dale-Foulkes; Lloyd Hutchinson

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