“Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please. Due to circumstances beyond our control, it has become necessary to evacuate the building. Please leave the building immediately by the nearest exit. Do not use the lifts.”
These words constitute the entire script of the new minimalist work opening at the Young Vic tonight. At once, the viewer is jolted into confrontation with their own mortality. As the text is repeated over the ensuing several hours, it becomes a Beckettian litany of existential despair. As Sartre would remind us, there is truly no alternative to the final exit that awaits us all.
The Young Vic has made the bold choice to perform this work with the theatre closed, forcing the audience to experience the piece in a site-specific promenade context. The design evokes a post-capitalist desolation; the emptiness of the near-freezing windswept street under the icy fragility of the blue-white LED Christmas lights emphasises the bleak message of the text, while the blown dead leaves and litter speak feelingly of decay and transience. The passing garbage trucks are a touch of genius: odorous ironclad ships that pass in the night, adding an ambient drone to the soundscape and providing a note of potent industrial menace.
The Young Vic never shies away from challenging its audience. Those expecting easy narrative solutions will be disappointed: we will never know what emergency prompted the evacuation or what hand pressed the button to broadcast this message to the theatre (and by extension the world: totus mundus agit histrionem, after all). In this case, I would venture to speculate that the medium is the message. A nameless voice implores an absent audience to exit an empty and locked building, subsequent repetitions lending urgency to the plea: is this not a stark and moving metaphor for the human condition?
Courageously, the piece denies us any hint of resolution. At 3AM or so, there is a sudden silence, denoting– the absence of an emergency? Or merely the absence of a warning? This abrupt ending is perfectly in the style of the piece, yielding no comfort or certainty whatsoever, save that of maybe finally going the fuck to sleep.
Raw and unsettling as it is, it must be admitted that this new piece has redefined the boundaries of theatre as we know it. At the moment, I have heard of no plans for a revival, but perhaps this unique work may attract funding: certainly it deserves to have its message heard by other audiences. (Ideally, audiences situated extremely far away.)
Liza Graham is a mezzo-soprano, writer, translator and Shakespearean text coach.