liberation and/or annihilation by John Bailey | RealTime issue #109 June-July 2012 pg. 24
THERE’S A LABORATORY IN THE US THAT APPARENTLY HOLDS THE RECORD FOR THE WORLD’S QUIETEST PLACE—SO ACOUSTICALLY INSULATED THAT ANYONE INSIDE THE ROOM WILL HEAR NOTHING BUT THE SOUNDS OF THEIR OWN BODY.
To hear your very blood circulating, your organs heaving, is supposed to be an alarming experience and few can last long in the anechoic chamber without risking their sanity. I don’t know if that’s true, but the story has some psychic pull to it, given the way it dramatises something nigh impossible in our lives today: the idea of being completely alone.
Theatre, for the most part, doesn’t play with aloneness all that much. It’s a social art, and if a work addresses solitude at the level of narrative, you’re usually witnessing it in a roomful of fellows. Even if you’re the only person who’s fronted up on the night, or it’s a play-for-one, you’re likely in a space with another human being performing in some manner. Theatre is shared.
That’s why UK duo Fish & Game’s Alma Mater proves such a striking encounter—striking in the sense of a blow, a box about the ears. It’s deceptively simple to describe. The lone audience member is given an iPad and headphones and sent into a small, artificially constructed room where they close the door behind them. The interior and its minimal furnishings—a bed, chair, dresser–is entirely white, a blank. The short film that plays out on the tablet’s screen, it becomes apparent, takes the same point of view as the person watching it, scanning the room as you pan in each direction. And then the ghosts appear. The device becomes a puncture in space, two pale children suddenly emerging and acknowledging the presence of the viewer.
While it doesn’t sound like much, the construction of the environment is integral to the phantasmic experience. It’s as if the mind struggles with the idea of being so completely alone, and gives the images on the screen more weight in reality as a result. Of course the kids aren’t in the room with you, but there’s an uncanny sense that they might be, in some way, or have left some real traces that hover behind you.
The drama that unfolds expands upon this prickling haunting: the room onscreen gradually becomes more embellished, the children discovering a bird in a cage, colour on walls, a family. A mystery begins to develop, involving a possible death, a transformation, a sinister sister with a murderous baking habit. We’re now in a space where something terrible may have occurred, and the children still regularly turn to look at us, their inscrutable expressions raising too many questions: are they asking us to help? Or to merely bear witness? Or is there something accusatory in there? Who, in the end, are we?
The whole encounter lasts barely 20 minutes but it’s riddled with enigmatic meanings that linger well after you exit the room. I left wanting to call someone, to talk to some real person if only to rid myself of the eerie sense that being so very alone opens up the possibility of visitations from places I’m pretty sure don’t exist. Which, some might argue, is one effective definition of art.