It’s difficult to write a review of 52 Souls because I can only write about my own experience of this piece, which is one of billions of potential combinations of performances; because there are more ways to shuffle a pack of cards than there are atoms on Earth.
With this in mind, Chronic Insanity (Joe Strickland and Nat Henderson) have produced a randomly generated but truly personal experience with a guarantee that no two audience members will see the same thing.
Given that the title is 52 Souls, a viewer can easily assume that death will be discussed and a content warning on the title page suggests that strong language may feature (if you get the right piece!). As someone who probably has a pack of cards, somewhere at the bottom of a drawer or in a box I haven’t unpacked since I moved in, I was pleased that the title page also gives a link to a digital pack of cards for me to use. As instructed, I shuffle and choose the corresponding performances.
Explaining the exact content of each of the nine pieces would not give you an indication of what another audience member would see and would take away some of the magic. Each piece stars a solo performer speaking directly to camera with a monologue about death and each character is well-formed and distinctive. One piece examines the origin of viral infections and another highlights the dangers of self-diagnosis using the internet – something with which we can all identify. Favourites of mine include a story of accidental suicide told by cardboard figures in rhyme and a morality tale accompanied by crayoned pictures. Two pieces ask me to listen to songs about grief and pain, then ask me to form my own opinion. The penultimate piece questions whether a train accident is more horrifying than The Shining and another forces me to research the ancient Buddhist practice of Sokushinbatsu, or self-mummification. The whole experience is nicely wrapped up in verse by the entire ensemble.
Whilst the concept is original and clever and the event unique, there were a few issues in my viewing experience which let the overall piece down. I appreciate that presenting work in this way is extremely challenging and I really have no idea how I would do so better than Chronic Insanity; however, I did feel that the record-at-home nature of some of the pieces was, whilst authentic, detrimental. The director should really have picked up on the quietness of one piece in particular. I missed most of the monologue about the statue because I genuinely couldn’t hear what the actor was saying (with volume on full and in a quiet room). Simple, practical actions would have avoided this and since I’d have to get another ticket and search for that performance again, I doubt I’ll ever find out how that story ended.
Overall, this is very worthwhile and should be experienced for concept alone; and who knows, if you play your cards right, you might get to hear all of the stories.
52 Souls is available online from 24 August to 6 September 2020. For more information and for tickets, visit the Chronic Insanity website.