words // Wesley Freeman-Smith
The tagline advertises Fiction as an anxious journey through the architecture of our dreams, and they’re not wrong. A new theatrical performance conceived by David Rosenberg and Glen Neath, the work is designed to lead audiences through a soundscape in complete darkness – which at a cursory glance may just seem like a really cheap way of staging an event.
This assumption would be completely, utterly wrong.
As we mingle in the foyer, waiting for some kind of cue to enter, I attempt to engage the Junction’s lead programmer in conversation. “Well… some of it is in darkness. But that’s all I’m saying… I don’t want to ruin the surprise.” As we’re ushered into the J2, headphones handed out at the door, the usually buzzing theatre is full of people silently seated at their assigned chairs focusing straight ahead at a screen. WE MUST ENSURE COMPLETE DARKNESS. TURN YOUR PHONES OFF, NOT ON SILENT. ONCE WE BEGIN, IT WILL NOT BE EASY TO LEAVE. So far, so Orwellian. I stumble to my given chair, and wait for the unknown.
By it’s very nature, the show is almost impossible to review. I can give a sense of how I felt, what I experienced, but in terms of describing it? No. That wouldn’t do you any favours. All I will say is that as we begin, our silent narrator informs us that half the people present are actors. A seemingly random member of the audience is called to get up and read the script provided. Her performance so perfectly replicates an anxious, unrehearsed member of the public it’s completely plausible to believe that’s exactly what she is. Her script deconstructs the very nature of fiction – how our minds imbue words with a life they don’t inherently possess, and how each of our constructed realities will differ from one another.
A few cues are provided; images of forestry, hotel rooms, corridors – all devoid of life. After that, you’re on your own. There’s a creeping suspicion that from this point on, conventional expectations have been discarded and anything can happen. The lights fade out, the speaker falls silent mid-sentence, and we begin.
A voice is whispering in my ear.
Images, errant thoughts swim before me in the darkness – I put my hand to my forehead, clamp it over my mouth, and wonder how sure I can be the hand is mine. Something brushes my hair – a passing insect perhaps, or something more sinister? Reality blurs and warps in a darkness that seems richer than normal darkness, almost viscous. Time is an alien concept. The fictional philosopher who appears in Flann O’Brien’s work (The Third Policeman, The Dalkey Archive) once hypothesized that darkness is not caused by a lack of light, it’s a substance secreted by millions of tiny volcanoes. In retrospect, it feels like that kind of darkness – a substance rather than an absence.
In the total blackness, we’re not alone. There is the nervous shuffling of chairs either side of me, and it becomes impossible to separate what is coming through the headphones and what is natural noise. One of the opening statements comes back to me – HALF THE PEOPLE IN THIS ROOM ARE ACTORS. There’s no way to verify how true this is – or what exactly will happen as a consequence. I imagine the lights coming back on and finding the room completely empty; or perhaps everyone will be standing up and staring at me as one.
A voice is whispering in my ear.
The essential paradox of the show, sewn deliberately, is that it is at once a communal and insular experience. We are not alone, but we are always alone.
The performance leans into this common anxiety imperceptibly in a way that’s almost subliminal. Common assumptions are removed at the start, the illusion of a shared reality shattered, and the message is reinforced throughout. On a practical level, how many of the people around me are real people and how many are actors? How can I be sure we’re all hearing the same narrative? The whole thing is structured so well it’s not entirely clear what you’re signing up for until you’re completely consumed. Escape is implausible, if not impossible, and mentally the only recourse is to follow where your companion leads you or run for cover behind circular thoughts that lead nowhere. Usual protective measures are discredited, and your main option is to see things through to the end.
If we’re talking about fear, I have every suspicion this was not the intention necessarily – its main appeal is that it is original, compelling, and completely immersive. I don’t want to give the impression we’re talking cheap Halloween tricks, here. If there is anything that may provide a point of reference, I would have to turn again to literature. Similar to Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, by the time the experience is underway you’re already several layers deep into the fictional world – too much to really turn away – and despite the knowledge that you’re just sitting in a room with some headphones on, it’s already become so much more than that.
From almost literally nothing, the director and writer have created a performance which suspends reality with alarming ease. It’s strange and almost unique, and by its very nature has as many potential facets as there are people in the room. The execution is meticulous, as it should be. Ultimately, it’s an experience I would repeat again – despite the existential terror – and one that I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in innovative concepts in performance. Avant garde at its most effective.
Fiction is performed again TONIGHT at Cambridge Junction – more info