There was a time some predominantly verbal theatre might have prompted the question of what makes it stage- rather than radio-worthy. Not so in the case of Kieran Hurley’s work, even though he spends most of his stage time seated at a desk.
It’s a few years since Hurley distinguished himself as an exciting new voice from Scotland. His award-winning piece from 2012, Beats, featuring a live accompaniment from a DJ and dealing with the criminalised rave scene of the 1990s, could be seen as an early prototype of the newly-emerging genre of gig theatre.
Like Beats, this new piece, Heads Up, has a poetic virtuosity and intrinsic musicality amplified by a carefully designed soundscape. The latter, however, is much more ambitious both in terms of content and form. While reading, Hurley also operates his own sound cues, his besuited seated figure carefully lit to reveal meaningful gestures as well as his bare feet engaged in subtle characterisations of their own. It is a case of hip hop-style sampling, on more levels than one.
Although his blurb lists more, four meticulous portraits from the show linger in memory, not least because of Hurley’s considered rendition – futures-dealer Mercy, sexually awakening thirteen-year old Ash, ditzy pop star-turned-father Leon, and mortified barista Abdullah. They are drawn to ring bells for us whichever city we happen to come from and to bear resonances of some more epic archetypes. It is the kind of material that mixes the urban and the mythical in the way that Kate Tempest has also done, although each artist’s execution is singular in tone and timbre.
The fact that as modern day storyteller, Hurley opts for second person narrative is justified by an apparent thematic focus on empathy, signalled in the first act. The piece ruptures half-way through, possibly in a deliberate attempt to simulate a terror attack? This, after all, is a story about the end of the world as we are told from the outset. However, this somewhat forced dramaturgical intervention results in an apparent loss of the storyteller’s command over the material, the latter end seeming a little too dispersed to culminate in a satisfyingly cogent finale. Perhaps this is part of the point – for each of us the end of the world will mean something different after all. But if you find yourself holding your breath for a punchline, you might be a little disappointed.
Heads Up is on at Summerhall, Edinburgh, until 28th August. More info here.