— Light, Theatre Ad Infinitum (UK) —
In darkness and with no dialogue Theatre Ad Infinitum create a dystopian, totalitarian future. Messages are sent by thought, thoughts that are open to infiltration, to hacking and hijacking. Strip lights and LEDs manipulated by the cast are the only items used to create this futuristic world – they are lighting and set combined. Meanwhile, offstage, director George Mann cues a live sound score.
Mime and every sci-fi cliché in the big bloody book of sci-fi cliché are used to tell the story of Alex, trying to track down and destroy the leader of a rebel group who are against thought infiltration. Alex has daddy issues – the big issue being that his daddy is the head of the evil mind police. It is very, VERY Orwellian: there is a totalitarian regime that tries to control people’s thoughts, a rebel uprising, a Room 101-ish detention centre…and when it’s not borrowing its tropes from 1984 it’s nabbing ideas from Star Wars (‘I am your mother’), Tron (a neon-lit motorcycle scene), Doctor Who (the EarPods from Rise of the Cybermen), 2001: A Space Odyssey (the use of classical music).
Homage is one thing, but this seems deliberately overdone. Story and speech are conveyed in surtitles that pump out lumps of pure cheese: ‘your anger is your weakness’, ‘I’m in her Mind Space’, and there is an obsession with capitalisations (‘the Virtual World’, ‘Thought Message’) that make it look as if they have been written by a Luddite grandmother.
Mann claims to have been inspired by Edward Snowden, but Light is having too much fun and revelling too much in its own beauty to say anything serious about data surveillance. Suspicion of government monitoring and the unacceptable invasion of privacy it constitutes is undermined by the cheese of the 80s sci-fi aesthetic.
All that said, the use of light illumines the stage with dazzling beauty. Aside from the strip lights, much of the light comes from a handheld bright spotlight on the end of a selfie stick that roams 3 dimensionally around the stage. Shafts and shadows continually metamorphose – at one moment a strip light is a cocktail bar, the next it is an elevator. There are frequent sharp switches from slow grace to manic, flashing frenzies. At one point the beams of light shining from the torches become almost tangible, as one of the characters seems to grab hold of the beams and twist them.
And not only does the company use bright light to great effect, but it recognises the visual power of shadow, too. As the spot moves closer and further from the faces of the cast, shadows on the back wall expand and diminish in menacing forms.
With disorienting contrasts between burning imprints into the retinas or filling the auditorium with the kind of intense darkness that weighs heavy on your eyes, Theatre Ad Infinitum ensure that Light is an ocular workout for its audience. Its political message is delivered with a ham-fist, but its glory is in the photophilic visuals. Overt beauty wins out over latent politicking and that is good enough: Mann’s imagination and the cast’s mime skills create a dazzling afterglow that lingers long after the house lights have risen.
Barbican until 24 January, then touring until 16 February throughout the UK. Dates and tickets here.