Alone. Isolated. Uncertain of what your future holds, if you even have one. Wondering if you will ever see your loved ones again. Scared, angry and treading ground you never thought you would…
It sure does sound as though I’m writing about how we’ve all been feeling throughout the majority of this rough year. However, I am of course talking about the astronauts of the Apollo 13 space mission in 1970, a mission which went infamously wrong and threatened the lives of the three men onboard. Stranded in space, unsure if they would manage to return to Earth alive, they were further from home than any human has ever been before and forced to place their trust in their team on the ground, to guide them home safely.
Not only does 2020 mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission, it also marks a year where audiences can really appreciate the isolation that these men went through whilst they were adrift in space. So the choice of this topic by Original Theatre Online (a new branch of the touring theatre Original Theatre Company) seems apt.
Like the rest of the industry, Original were forced to shut down production earlier this year, leaving them with a lack of both financial support and performance opportunity. However, through creative ingenuity, they have begun producing and streaming original content online. This allows them to break free from the usual limitations of theatre, by bringing their performances to a vastly wider audience and with a much longer run.
Apollo 13: The Dark Side of the Moon switches back and forth between the astronauts on their mission in 1970, strapped into their doomed craft, and those same men fifty years later, being interviewed about the flight in present day. This nonlinear approach provides a much-needed momentum to the action, whilst introducing elements of the story, through the set-up of an interview, and then exploring those moments up in space. The writer, Torben Betts, uses a refreshing irony in the way the present-day dialogue is written, poking fun at how writers like to create drama where there was none, then showing us fictitious drama that he has written. He uses this imagined dialogue to provide not just tension for the characters, but also to explore critical topics of the time, such as the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, providing even greater parallels with the world today than just isolation.
The atmosphere is instantly cinematic, whilst being very careful not to set the performance up as the next Hollywood Blockbuster. The budget is low and yet the cinematography (if you can call it that) is superb. The sound, frame rate, lighting, editing, it’s all polished and crisp. Even the use of green screen, a tool that has been over-utilised during lockdown, mostly to poor results, is very successfully pulled off. What is most astonishing, however, is that the majority of the production was filmed by the actors themselves in isolation at home. They use varying camera angles, combined with some fantastically defined movement, to give the production a very believable feeling of zero-gravity. This successfully conveys the confines of the spacecraft – which is especially amazing, considering the limitations.
The whole cast, wonderfully co-directed by Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters, are very well suited to their roles, keeping the performances theatrical rather than minimising too much for the camera. Impressively, it is clear that every actor is in the same production, actually interacting with one another when, in reality, they have all been filmed separately. Jenna Augen gives an amazing performance as the voice of Capcom, bridging the gap between the shuttle and NASA. Whilst never being seen on screen, her detailed vocalisation makes the character feel completely alive, as though we could see her too.
This production clearly provided a huge challenge, but has succeeded in giving the industry a benchmark for the standard of online theatrical content. It’s a brilliantly written play, based on a fascinating moment in the history of mankind, and it really helps to bring this whole year into perspective, perhaps similar to how the world looked from Apollo 13.
Apollo 13: The Dark Side of the Moon is available to watch online until 31 December 2020. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Original Theatre Online website.