This review does not discuss specifics of plot, however as much of Ring depends on surprise and surrender, those who haven’t yet experienced it are advised to stop reading, book tickets, go and enjoy it, and then come back here and pick up where they left off.
To record binaurally an engineer will generally mount two microphones within a dummy head, a mannequin with anatomically accurate lugholes that facilitates the capture of sounds as they would be heard and processed by a living person. It’s an extension of stereo that takes the acoustic reality of auditory consumption into account, that works towards a transformation of the sound as symbol of the real to sound as simulacra of reality. The binaural sound recording, played back through noise cancelling headphones becomes a means of transportation, of the creation of an experience of being elsewhere, rather than of listening to sounds from elsewhere projected into the hear and now. The journey only exists in one sense, of course, it is limited to the aural. To make the journey more convincing, to give his hyper-real mega-map the totality it requires, David Rosenberg has reduced our sensory territory, with Ring occurring in total darkness and isolation.
We’re ushered into the room by Shunt-regular Simon Kane, who oversees this ‘group session’, an unspecified hour of therapy that we’ve unwittingly signed up to. A few of us are asked our names, we’re split up from our friends, we’re warned it’s going to get very dark and that anyone who (still) has a luminous watch should conceal it. Kane is jocular and charismatic, but there’s a palpable tension. Rosenberg’s reputation precedes him, and the same sense of nervous anticipation that hung over the docking stations for The Architects and Money hangs in the air. If we expect a rollercoaster from Rosenberg, Kane’s performance is the ominous clickety-clack of the chain lift.
Once the lights are out and the performance begins, the power of the technology is startling. It’s almost impossible to keep your bearings, to cling to the knowledge that you’re in a paradoxical community of monads, experiencing the same false sense of your location or dislocation within the room. The sound of footsteps, of whispers in your ears are so utterly convincing, that at times you can almost feel and smell the breaths on your cheek. Ben and Max Ringham have done an astounding job creating an all-consuming aural experience. Your brain isn’t built for this, it doesn’t stand a chance.
The play itself is often fascinating, and always unnerving, well performed by a recorded cast that includes Shunt’s Nigel Barrett and the brill Tom Lyall. Taking place within a group therapy session that flickers back and forth to your left and right, it twists and shifts from easy humour to outright threat like a wispy half-dream. Glenn Neath’s script is oddly Pinteresque, with its themes of buried memories, its sudden accusations and slippery approach to identity. There’s a dash of Lord of the Flies here too, as the group becomes an hysterical mounting chorus that threatens to spill into violence. The audience (which should be considered as a singular rather than group entity) is at the centre of proceedings, and is tossed between love and hatred, acceptance and rejection.
There’s a sense in which the content cannot quite live up to the form, and the journey which is promised and prepared for begins to feel disappointingly circular towards the second half. There are plenty of moments of creeping fear, one or two of outright terror, and there are certainly times in which the forced surrender feels invigorating and liberating, but there are also points in which the tricks exhaust themselves, and there’s little euphoria to counterbalance the clinical horrors. Binaural technology opens up a plethora of tantalising new possibilities for internal theatre, and there are strains of stunning new emotional melodies threaded throughout this hour in the dark, but frustratingly Neath’s script is too often content with a single note.