With total darkness, discordant music and occasional LED strip lighting, the Pit at the Barbican could currently be the location for some of the enhanced interrogation techniques used by our Lieutenant-mispronouncing military allies. But according to Cruel Britannia it’s not just the Americans who have used this torture-by-another-name on captives. Light from Theatre Ad Infinitum is inspired by Ian Cobain’s revelations that Britain’s security services have played a disturbing role in developing psychological torture. ‘We will be watching you’, barks a disembodied voice at the start, referring to the use of mobile phones but setting the scene for the mime that follows.
Light takes place in the early Eighties. That’s the 2080s. As with many dramas set in the future the first thing that has disappeared from the world is good taste. Uniforms are de rigour, with everyone, good or bad, wearing the same blue military-policey overalls. We think it’s outrageous that the government agencies intercept our text messages but seventy years from now that will seem a quaint worry, akin to fretting whether the post mistress is steaming open our telegrams. The concerns of the late 21st century security services have changed. The first thought messages have just been sent, brain to brain, and the government wants to discover what we’re thinking.
Five actors with torches tell the tale of rebels, doctors and the interception of newly developed thought messages. Charlotte Dubery, Matthew Gurney, Robin Guiver, Deborah Pugh and Michael Sharman throw themselves around in a quickly changing series of mimed scenes. The Barbican’s lighting assistants have the evening off and the actors do their own illuminations, lighting each other up as they move across the stage. This is an engaging technique, focusing attention on precisely the face or body that the director requires. There is no looking at anything else, because everything else is black.
The general premise of governmental misuse of new technology is clear, though what precisely ensues isn’t easy to follow. After all, there is no speech, the two main male actors are shaven headed doppelgängers, everyone wears the same outfits and everything takes place in small bursts of light in the dark. In lieu (…maybe the Americans have a point…) of voices there are surtitles that give importance to some banal lines, but there is no scenery and no props to help explain the actions on stage. Sound designer Chris Bartholomew has opted for exaggerated sound effects for every action – whether putting on a hat or climbing on a motorbike. These become wearing long before the end of the show.
Light is part of the London International Mime Festival which celebrates contemporary visual theatre. The piece is a bold attempt to draw attention to the problems of society in a new way. The programme blurb mentions Edward Snowden and fears of the out of control security services. But it hits its target obliquely and appears as a sci-fi futuristic speculation rather than the contemporary critique it wants to be.