There is no theatrical experience quite like Light. And that’s not just because Theatre Ad Infinitum’s latest offering is a rich, fascinating dystopian thriller with a terrifying totalitarian state – a genre explored so many times on the page and in film, but rarely on stage. Light is chiefly unique because it plays in total darkness, other than LEDs and torches.
Since an invention that enables thought messages between people, the world is entrenched with terror, rebels and a ceaselessly controlling state. With only the simplest of technology – plus a strong, voiceless cast who so brilliantly move in time with the incredibly well-thought out sound and light effects – Light tells this terrifying story with highly concentrated emotion that peaks in torture scenes, but also the softer moments. These dictators and rebels are human after all.
But, rarely for a brilliant play, Light’s story is weak. With its state agents, rebel factions and family secrets, we’ve seen it all before. Unfortunately the dialogue matches the plot: tired and predictable. When it is subtle and believable, the surtitled script endears and emotionally enraptures, but too often it strays into cheesiness and unnaturalness that distances the audience from the characters.
It doesn’t help that the whole thing is done without speech. Characters mime silent conversations for long periods of time, sometimes without any surtitles, which feels slow, overdone and dull. Of course, mime means Light is accessible for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences, both of which would have a intriguingly different experience. In its best moments, the lack of dialogue increases the uncomfortable yet powerful disconnectedness the audience feel with the piece.
As well as distancing and strange, Light can be painfully moving, mostly because of the dazzling way it is told. Director and writer George Mann, in an interview with A Younger Theatre, said Light’s disorientating teasing of the audience’s senses is inspired – if that’s the right word – by sensory deprivation, a torture method used in British history.
Likewise in Light, the audience are starved of vision and overwhelmed with sound. At first I thought the play’s title, then, might be a statement of hope – a claim that there is always light even in torturous darkness. That is, until Mann revealed that the title originated from GCHQ’s name for the metadata of all the online activity they spied on (unsurprisingly, the Edward Snowden revelations were the spark that lit the fire for Mann). In other words, Light is a warning from Mann.
Understanding Mann’s reasons for writing Light means the play becomes a heavy-hearted warning, a trigger to scrutinise the world we live in and a powerful, sombre message: be wary of absolute power. The pedestrian plot becomes secondary to the way it is told. Light, sound and movement are used with astonishing finesse to stir a crushingly high level of fear, thrill, as well as concern for our future.
Light is playing at the Battersea Arts Centre until 13 February. For more information and tickets, see the Battersea Arts Centre website. Photo: Theatre Ad Infinitum.