The tension mounts as the audience is led through a labyrinth of dimly lit stone staircases and dingy corridors, before finally arriving at a deserted underground car park. The serious expressions of athletes, striding up and down a 100m metre track, greets the bemused body of people here to watch the narrative unfold in various corners of this oppressively contained artistic space. Director Maggie Norris and Designer Emma Bailey’s innovative setting provides an appropriately secluded platform to those on the fringe of society; those that have been squashed underground and pushed away from the gaze of humanity. Each corner of the dark car park houses a different setting, convincingly transformed into bedrooms strewn with week-old pizza boxes and unappetising stains; a run-down park littered with mud, leaves and a beaten-up car; a yard ravaged by callous youths carpeted with popped balloons. By infusing an overwhelming sense of dirt, the smell enhances the striking visuals, but whether this came organically or was purposefully imbued, remains ambiguous. The strands of the fragmented set unite to create a feeling of the bitter, of the real, of the personal.
Andrew Day’s sharp, angry, fast-paced narrative follows the steps of Callum (played by Aston McAuley), who commences his adult life, already invaded with trauma. His past is gradually unveiled, disturbingly culminating when he is taken from his mother and sister, after which a childhood in foster care ensues. His future is equally bleak as he is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Fears of the future and anxieties from the past mutate into hallucinations that hauntingly accost the audience. The most horrifying phantom is impressively and originally characterised by Oz Enver, who is an incarnation of McAuley’s disease; his muscular and emotional control is taken over by this pulsating disfigured creature, battling with McAuley throughout.
Every inch of the performance is suffused with anger, anxiety and intensity. Kate Waters, the Fight Director, ensures that the energy is thrown into the audience during confrontational episodes of violence, as the usually comforting boundary between stage and seating is refreshingly absent. The occasional use of strobe lighting contrasts the harsher white glares and the murky orange luminosity, all serving to project the actor’s angst into their surroundings. Despite this largely oppressive energy, humour sprinkles the mood with light relief– especially in the form of Bready (played by Daniel Akilimali) whose coping mechanism comes packaged in blithe laughter.
The audience are merely an arbitrary addition to this performance, as we navigate our way through the fast-paced scenes, guided only by sounds, lights, and voices that draw us from nook to cranny. We feel like uncomfortable spies, peeping into deeply personal issues, powerless to stop the trauma unfolding before us.
Phoenix Rising is playing at The Big House until December 2 2017.
Photo: Rick Findler