Friday 23 August 2013

EIF 2013 - Leaving Planet Earth, or, Great Idea Let Down By Execution

You've got to feel sorry for Jonathan Mills and the International Festival on this one. On paper it was such a good idea. Commission the top site-specific theatre company in Scotland, Grid Iron, to produce a new show in a venue in Edinburgh that most of your prospective audience have never been to, on the back of a string of 5 star fringe hits. Alas, the best laid plans of mice and Festival Directors...

Let us start with the positives. The Climbing Centre at Ratho is a stunning building, with a number of features cleverly suggestive of some kind of futuristic environment. The external landscape in particular, aided by a great deal of fortuitous fog, also fitted the bill. The ideas behind the show, a doomed earth, the old attempt to build a new utopia on another world, requiring the audience to think about their personal choice, are clever ones, but sadly insufficient attention has been given to the script, and the execution is not committed enough.

The show has two strands. The first is the journey, individual and collective, which the audience is supposed to be going on. The second is the behind the scenes problems of the new utopia which effectively functions as a pretty straight delivered, if insufficiently well interconnected, set of scenes. The two strands are not well enough related to each other.

The problems start when you arrive, in good time, at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. You are handed a wrist band which, as the performance progresses, vibrates and flashes. It also has a three word jargon name which now completely escapes me. The official start time is 8pm, but nothing happens until about 25 minutes past the hour. Now I can appreciate that some care had to be taken with respect to latecomers but the trouble is that, given what Grid Iron seem to want to achieve with the journey to Ratho which follows, it is a serious misstep. On that journey you are supposed to enter into the fiction that you are making the jump to New Earth. The reason given for this is a third world war has occurred on Old Earth therefore dooming that world. Had the company made some effort during that wasted 25 minutes to create a sense of threat or fear, this might have worked. But they don't. Nor has much effort been expended on the buses themselves – the bus drivers look like bus drivers, the video again gives little sense of threat. The clearest indication of how badly the attempt to engage audience commitment in the process fails occurred as the bus neared Ratho and the New Earth oath flashed up on the screen. As the show proceeds it becomes increasingly apparent that we're all supposed to have taken that oath on the bus. On mine it was greeted with dead silence. The conceit is also not helped by the fact that at the Climbing Centre itself almost everywhere you look are signs of various kinds reminding you that you're at the Climbing Centre. I appreciate that the company couldn't possibly deal with them all, but I do think that if you're going to try to create the illusion of being on another planet more effort was needed. The result of all this was that I simply did not buy into the fiction that I (as a new arrival) might be susceptible to backsliding (allegedly indicated by my wrist band vibrating) or indeed that I might need to be watching my fellow audience members for similar signs. If you're going to try to make an audience complicit in a fiction, you've got to do a much more immersive job than this.

Meanwhile, having arrived at Ratho the second strand of the evening has come into play. We're introduced through a series of scenes to a number of characters who've been on New Earth some time. It has already become clear from the bus journey that the script is weak, and this problem also affects these scenes. We don't really get to know any of the characters well enough to form a bond, and many concepts feel half-baked and plot points insufficiently explored. Thus, we are warned that backsliders may have to be set on the Path but quite what this is we're never told. Similarly, there is a suggestion that the second tier people are putting the leader under observation because they're worried she is backsliding, but despite the fact she shows ever increasing signs of being thoroughly unhinged this point simply disappears from view.

And, while all this is going on, there is rather too much standing about on gantries or in rooms while nothing is happening. It gradually becomes obvious that the reason for this is that there are three groups on rotation (up to the final scene) but once again more work seemed needed to make this issue less obvious – given, that is, the attempt to immerse the audience in the narrative.

The small team of actors (significantly outnumbered by ushers and technical personnel) are solid enough, and one feels sympathy for the fact that they have to struggle with the inadequate script. There's some nice effects, but there are problems here too – when the pilot describes flying over various things it is conspicuous that the visuals are not matching the description. The building, as mentioned at the start, had excellent potential, but it seems a real waste not to use the climbing arena until the very end, and even then really only to use it for video projection.

Once again this is a show that proves, rather sadly this time, that you can have great concepts and access to complicated staging and technology, but if your script isn't good enough none of that will avail you.

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