We start with instructions about our headphones. Each audience member has a pair. And then with a clunk, we’re enveloped into the pitch black.
“It’s a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.” The soft voice is in my ear. It’s as close as a whisper over my shoulder. I listen intently (a concentration that will be sustained for the full 50-minute experience) to a number of interview monologues, where each interviewee has, or is suffering from, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The speakers are all British men involved in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. They explain their experience of the condition with remarkable clarity and humility. The intimacy of the interviews is astounding.
And then the lights are back. A soldier, in full modern combat uniform, sits centre stage. His face is camouflaged by the projection of a wood against the back wall. The sound of his movements – heavy breathing, popping open a bottle of pills – are conveyed by recorded sounds through the headphones again.
This, we are given to believe, is a representation of Banquo. Goat and Monkey’s The Devil Speaks True intends to tell the story of Shakespeare’s Macbeth from Banquo’s perspective, but I have to confess that I wasn’t convinced on this front. In his director’s notes, Joel Scott explains the decision to graft PTSD sufferer interviews with excerpts from Shakespeare’s text is intended to highlight “Banquo’s loss of kudos and identity from the conflict zone and his struggle to re-integrate into ‘normal’ life”. But what should have been an enlightening reinterpretation of an iconic character through modern events feels instead like two different plays failing to communicate.
This is my only reservation however, and I can understand that it seems like a large one. But my experience was that the weight of the show’s other elements more than made up for misgivings elsewhere.
Commendations must go to lighting designer, Leo Woolcock and video designer, Alex Vipond, whose often fragmented strobing work is spellbinding in its intensity. In calmer moments, the widescreen panoramas projected onto the back wall are mesmerising. Dominic Kennedy’s sound design and audio work is so transportative that it feels like you are an audience of one. You feel the harsh burn against your eardrums when jets scorch overhead; you hear the crack of Banquo’s voice in your ear when he begs Fleance to fly. Kennedy has delivered mightily on a richly textured and ensemble artistic vision.
Likewise, Neil Callaghan is someone that I would like to look up in future. For a piece so layered in multimedia, a minimalist performance would likely lend itself well, choosing not to overload the audience’s already saturated sensory experience. But the brave choice is made to include a great deal of focus on Callaghan, including rather deft touches of abstract physical work to put over moments in the battlefield or brutal torture. While these moments aren’t distracting at all, and are impressively performed by Callaghan with balletic precision, it is the image of his face – eyes stricken with horror, mouth foaming – that will stay with me.
I feel confident that I haven’t taken away all that the creative team have intended, but what I took away has left me hankering for more. I’d happily drag friends along to the show again this evening, and will search actively for anything that Goat and Monkey produce in future. Ultimately, it is an entirely engulfing experience, emotionally intense and technologically advanced without gimmickry.
The Devil Speaks True plays at Vault festival until 27 February. See their website for tickets and details. www.vaultfestival.com/the-devil-speaks-true