Kai Fischer’s Last Dream (On Earth) intertwines two distinct stories about the limits of human endurance. In 1961, at the height of the Cold War, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man to enter outer space. In the present day, African refugees risk their lives attempting to reach Europe, braving the busiest shipping lanes in the world in inflatable dinghies. These stories are weaved in and out of each other in an immersive, experimental melting pot of music and words, piped into the audience’s ears through headphones. It’s a startlingly powerful experience, but one that lacks intellectual depth.
Five performers, bathed in cool, blue light, sit facing the audience. Tyler Collins and Gameli Tordzro provide accompaniment on guitar and percussion respectively, making liberal use of loop pedals to complement Matt Padden’s ethereal soundscape. Michelle Cornelius, Kimisha Lewis and Edward Nikom supply the words, speaking into microphones set up before them, never looking at each other. Their dialogue is distorted, received by the audience as crackling satellite transmissions between Gagarin and Mission Control – think Public Service Broadcasting’s album, The Race For Space – or muffled phone conversations between refugees and their families.
Two portraits emerge of resilient individuals in situations of unimaginable pressure, against backdrops of political turmoil and with the hopes and expectations of others resting heavily upon their shoulders. Nikom’s Gagarin, aware that the eyes of the Soviet Union are on him, constantly asserts his wellbeing to those on Earth, just as Lewis’ migrant repeatedly reassures her father back home that everything is okay, despite overwhelming adversity. Fear of failure, fear of disappointing others, as much as a will to succeed, is what drives both Russian cosmonaut and African migrant.
With barely any visuals, Fischer crafts moments of both exquisite beauty and sweltering drama. The emphatic countdown, squawked over the deafening rumble of Gagarin’s firing rockets, raises the hairs on the back of one’s neck, as does Gagarin’s hauntingly plaintive description of Earth from space. Lewis’ refugee’s account of her breathless, bewildering journey in an inflatable, bright yellow dinghy off the coast of Morocco, delivered against a backing of blaring foghorns and booming waves, is heart-poundingly exhilarating.
But Last Dream (On Earth) evolved through workshops, and it shows. The performance is packed full of half-ideas and almost-truths, all sensitively realised but none fully fleshed out. The audience leaves with a potent impression of two extreme experiences on the edge of life and death, but little understanding of them. What was Gagarin’s significance in Cold Ward politics? What did his safe return mean for Krushchev’s Soviet Union? What geopolitical tensions lie underneath the migrant crisis? What pressures precipitate individuals to trust their lives to rickety boats and stormy seas? Gorgeously designed and sensorially engrossing though Last Dream (On Earth) may be, it is undoubtedly a triumph of concept over content.