Feature: Theatre Ad Infinitum lights up a dark, dystopian future

“A big amalgamation of thoughts and ideas and dreams,” says writer and director George Mann when I ask him the origin of Light, Theatre Ad Infinitum’s dystopian piece returning to London this year following a critically-acclaimed Edinburgh Fringe 2014 run. It is indeed massive – in its concept, its scope of genres and its ambition.

Light is a dystopian sci-fi thriller and, inspired by the Snowden revelations and the ongoing debate over state surveillance, both a commentary on modern times and a warning of what the future could hold. It – and here comes its impressive ambition – tells its story wordlessly, with no lighting but LED strips and torches. “I found that GCHQ had a codename for our metadata, and the codename was light,” explains Mann.

Mann says the idea had been cooking for a while. “I’d had a nightmare about being under surveillance back in 2004 and failed countless times to try and write it. Then I went to the Jacues Lecoq theatre school. It wasn’t until the Snowden revelations happened that I realised that I really wanted to make it work, find a way to do that. They were a huge kind of catalyst that made me realise it’s important to explore that scene now.

“And I was also really shocked about the response to it. I just expected there to be a kind of outrage and an uproar or for something to happen – and very little happened. And I’m not saying that Light is going to change the world. But I think in my sphere as an artist, I suppose I wanted to just do what I could do, and get it into the public sphere and get people thinking about it at the very least. It was a response to what was going on. I want people to engage with this debate that Snowden’s kick-started.”

But, says Mann, “the piece is not just political. It’s also kind of a homage to dystopia, within the realms of film, novel, graphic novel as well. There’s an element of it that’s also fun: it’s not just a cold, hard, serious political. It’s not. And not everything in it is going to resonate politically.” The easiest statement to make about Light, then, is it’s hard to categorise.

“There are moments where Light is just something else: it’s a real visceral experience. You’re thrust in the dark and left to fend for yourself as an audience. It’s a really tough style for some people because there’s loud music, it’s in the dark and that can trigger kind of reactions of fear, because some people are just very scared of being in a dark space, feeling claustrophobic and, you know, at the very beginning of the play, that’s often when a couple of people might need to walk out.”

Sci-fi, thinks Mann, isn’t everyone’s favourite. “But I love fiction and I love sci-fi and I love fantasy and I love all those kind of things, because the difference between the real world and the world they inhabit gives meaning to the present day world that you’re in, so it allows you to see things in the way that you wouldn’t have otherwise.” And Light certainly doesn’t break that rule. Mann has based his disturbing world on reality: surveillance, sensory deprivation torture and government clampdowns on free speech.

Mann is refreshingly open about what he perceives to be the flaws of his work. “I’m never satisfied,” he says. He is particularly critical of the showing at Edinburgh. “We had time to reconsider and notice weaknesses. I also felt it hadn’t quite made its point and in non-verbal work it just has to be. There was no room for lack of clarity. The style is very strong and once we’d gone down that route, it took hold of the piece and took it in a certain direction. It’s very hard to fight against that.”

“I’m really happy with Light the way it is now. I’m really happy with where we got it to. I feel much more comfortable since the mime festival last year. But politically, I still feel we should do more with it. I don’t know what that would be. But I do feel that, if there was time – unfortunately there isn’t a huge amount of time or money available – but to go back into rehearsal. If there was I’d love to kind of update it.”

Mann can self-criticise and ponder tweaks, but Light is dazzling audiences. In Autumn, it will hit China – a trip Mann is excited for, but understandably wary of – and he wants “the audience to enjoy the piece – and, by enjoy, which is always a kind of weird thing to say – I want them to go through an experience that they feel stays with them in some way. I think theatre has to find some way to stay important.”

Light is playing Battersea Arts Centre until 13 February. For more information and tickets, see Battersea Arts Centre.

Image credit: Alex Brenner