The first thing that struck me as I entered the Cavern space at Vaults was the overwhelming smell of dirt and mold, the coldness sneaking around the edges of the air, and the faded projection on the back brick wall of stars whooshing by, as if we were travelling at rocket speed. This clash of earthiness and space together was bewildering and disjointed, but a good signifier of the dirty, rough yet mostly ready production that is Space Play. The performance is a one hour vignette of a man who has been sent into space to produce art that makes a statement not only about the company that so graciously gave him this opportunity, but about humanity at large. Instead of getting an easy trip around the earth and a chance to be self-reflecting, artist Michael finds himself the captain of the ship after an accident kills everyone else onboard. With only the woman at mission control named Sophie, and the DVDs of space-themed movies that she emails to him, to keep him company, Michael finds himself bargaining for his worth not only in an existential way, but literally to the head of the company, Magnolia.
For a play that is so concerned about space (as in time, location, and the void of darkness and stars in which we all exist) its staging at the Vaults seemed spatially awkward. Michael is contained in a Stanley Kubrick-esque capsule, an octagonal box made of clear plastic and illuminated around the edges by white LEDs. While the aesthetic is a gorgeous nod to the legacy of the space narratives with which Space Play engages, the echoing chamber of the Vaults cramped the set and from a practical standpoint, severely limited the audience’s sightlines and ability to hear Michael. The dirt and richness of the underground space is a good near-blank canvas on which this play can be performed, but the classic set-up of rows of audience seating detracted from by ability to connect with Michael. I found myself wishing that Brave Badger had pushed a little harder, as they claim to do, and scatter the audience around the set, so that we were floating in space with Michael.
Harriet Madeley does a brilliant job playing multiple roles, all of which orbit around and raise up Mark Knightley’s performance and very blank character. Madeley’s subtle switches in her voice or her poise are enough for the audience to understand that she has become Magnolia, sinister CEO, or Sophie, the woman at mission control just trying to do her job. While Knightley does well with the material he’s given, the point of his character is to be bland. That is, he is not the hero we are usually given in our space narratives. He has no skills that would prepare him for survival in space, nor does he have the unquenchable drive to survive. He’s the man who has been duped by corporate business, the metaphor for art being exploited by business. He tries to become that hero, mimicking Matt Damon in The Martian by declaring that he’s going to ‘Science the shit out of this’ and referencing countless other films, but to no avail. As the Everyman using his arsenal of pop culture to try and survive, and to make his existence worth something, his reactions are probably closer to that of the average audience member than I’d like to admit.
The production truly shines for the ways it encourages us to think about how we have romanticized space, even through the tragedies caused because of our desire to travel beyond our atmosphere. We’re shown a montage of our favourite space-themed films with a backing track of Aerosmith as a cinematic opening to the play, but then told that life is not a movie, that we are not heroes – and although the set wasn’t supposed to topple over, the collapse of the Kubrick-style frame made this point even clearer. Michael’s narrative is the classic man-stranded-in-space-after-a-tragic-accident that we see in The Martian, Apollo 13, Gravity, 2001: A Space Odyssey and countless others. Michael is meant to create a new art piece from his journey in space, and all he can produce is a red ‘reset’ button. We go to space to start over, to escape who we have been. It was a very familiar spacewalk, but one that made me realise that our relationship with space can be far more than we have thus far imagined, if only our minds will let us.
Space Play is on at Vaults Festival until 29th January 2017. Click here for more details.