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Festival Reviews: Immersive Theatre

Michael Cox reviews Counting Sheep, World Without Us and Cut.

Immersive theatre has been a cornerstone in the Fringe programme. While some of these productions end up being mere gimmicks, others embrace the nature and manage to create something special.

Take Counting Sheep (****), a production that's next to impossible to discuss without giving too much away. It defies being stuck into a single category: is it theatre, gig, art installation? It's all of these, and much more.

A dramatisation of the protests that struck Ukraine in 2013/14, the audience watch as performers dramatise specific beats from those months of civil unrest, playing characters on both sides. These are complimented by projections of images, news reports and text. Other things happen, but to reveal more would take away any surprise—of which there are many.

As a production it is highly impressive. The company, cast and crew, literally throw themselves into the action, creating an experience that makes ambiance as important as the characters. It is at times fun, sometimes scary and other times devastating.

Perhaps the piece would benefit more from dramaturgical depth—individual characters are all but non-existent, and no moment is fully delved into—but the potency of the experience cannot be denied. It will linger long in your mind and make you think hard about an incident that seems to have all but disappeared from the current news cycle.

Something that comes from a good idea but manages to all but botch it in the end is Ontroerend Goed’s World Without Us (**). The piece poses a question: what would happen to Earth if humans suddenly disappeared? No mass explosion or plague that leaves corpses but simply the sudden erasure of humanity.

An hour-long hypothetical description of what would happen to the land, buildings and animals left behind is given, bookended by the messages sent into deep space on the Voyager spacecraft that was launched in the 1970s. Much of this is delivered in darkness, with occasional light effects breaking the blackness.

Nice try—but it begs to question: why bother? Very little is gained by attending a live performance of this, particularly as some of the monologue is pre-recorded. It isn’t helped that the darkness keeps the performer hidden for most of the running time, preventing any form of communion with the audience. Listening to a full recording on headsets, in privacy at home or in a designated space, would not detract from the experience—in fact it might be preferable. The monologue rambles on, repeating ideas and beating intriguing images into tedium.

It’s a shame, particularly as the Voyager messages are a very nice juxtaposition to a good concept. Overlong and at times self-indulgent, the production thinks it’s much better than it actually is.

What does make the concept of theatrical darkness work splendidly is Cut (****). A woman thinks she’s being stalked. She sees the face of a man following her—at home, at work and walking through a city.

The production, a one-woman monologue, plunges the audience in total darkness within a small staging area. Lights snap up, finding the woman in different locations as she tells her story. It’s a clever way of not only heightening tension but also creating within the audience’s mind the uncertainty the woman feels.

The production values are consistently solid here. It is a well-written play that is sharply designed and directed. The use of a small performance space and darkness is key to the production, but it isn’t paramount to its success—that is down to performer Hannah Norris. Norris is excellent, portraying a complicated character with aplomb. Even without the technical wizardry, Norris impresses—making Cut a stand-out production.

Counting Sheep and World Without Us are part of Summerhall’s programme. Cut is part of Underbelly’s programme. Check websites for further details.

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