Going Dark

Sound&Fury’s innovative new production plunges us into darkness to connect the vastness of the night sky with our lives, loves and ways of seeing the world. Sometimes the lines are a little too obviously drawn; but ultimately this cosmic exploration of human loss and the power (and necessity) of imagination is hauntingly effective.

At first there is darkness and the sound of rain and thunder; and then there is light. Projected onto the ceiling above us in the Young Vic’s intimate black-box space is a field of stars. We are in a planetarium. But even as astronomer Max (John Mackay) opens our eyes to the origins of the universe and myths of constellations, he is going blind.

Writer Hattie Naylor and Sound&Fury intersperse single parent Max’s planetarium talks with scenes with his young son, to create a deeply personal tale of belonging refracted through millennia of astronomy. In between learning of the stories of the stars told by different civilisations to anchor themselves in the infinite blackness of space, we watch a six-year-old and his Dad play Thunderbirds; finding a closeness as Brains and Virgil flying to the moon as surely as they do by spotting the Big Dipper and lonely children drawn in celestial zigzags above them.

The light of the pole star Max shows us early on becomes a dot in a sight test as the syndrome he is suffering from causes his peripheral vision to fade and all the fixed points in his life – his job, fatherhood – become unstuck. MacKay is heartrending here, essaying stifled anguish as his character is increasingly unable to find his bearings in his own home let alone in the night sky. His retreat into himself, energy turned inwards like a dying star, complements the understated brilliance of the writing, which falters and fades with fears unspoken.

But while the play isn’t afraid to show the impact of Max’s blindness, it isn’t without hope. It draws metaphorical connections between cognitive science, the thermodynamics of star formation and a child’s storytelling to become a hymn to human imagination as a source of power and consolation in the darkness. By involving his condition in the stories they tell each other, Max and his son have begun to find new ways of seeing each other by the play’s end.

Co-directors Mark Espiner and Dan Jones ensure that our experience as spectators to Max’s journey is no less revelatory. The script occasionally draws its lines too thick, imposing the shape of its themes on us rather than letting us join the dots for ourselves. But Jones’s astonishing soundscape and Guy Hoare’s striking lighting design mean that you simply won’t care.

From the frightening aural dissonance of a traffic-filled street to the gentle noise of rain on trees, Going Dark turns off the lights and plays with our senses, immersing us in a world that exists beyond the realm of what we can see. As we smile, laugh or look on sadly, it is easy to forget that Max’s son only exists as a roaming tape-recording.

Don’t be surprised if this astronomy lesson breaks your heart and exhilarates you at the same. This is stripped-down theatre at its purest; a technology-driven form of make-believe that packs a huge emotional punch.

First published by Exeunt