A call to witness the end of the world. A delicate bracelet tied to your wrist. A programme printed on a sealed envelope. Waiting in the muted vestibule of the stunning and historic St. Leonard’s Church, surrounded by candles. Everything about the preamble to Sun builds up anticipation, readies you for a unique shared experience.
It feels almost unfair, then, to judge a production on the weight of your own expectations, but when those in turn have been so schooled by the way in which the production has framed itself through its marketing, through its website and through its setting, it does seem almost unavoidable. It raises the question of whether we should include such elements in our classification of ‘performance’ – is the entry way, the envelope, the burning sun on the NAS website all arguably part of setting the stage?
As we huddle on a triangle of benches set in the centre of the church, and Alan Fielden’s vision of the apocalypse unfolds around us, it becomes clear that Sun is going to be less of a curated theatrical experience than an ode to the abstractions of human nature. Though we have been invited in, the audience now feel very much on the margins of the piece, despite the main thrust of the physicality taking place before, under and around us.
It does not follow that this is without poignancy, and in weaving its way through tales of lovers, friends and dinosaurs, Sun very often hits the mark. A marriage disintegrates painfully, pointlessly; played first by one pair of actors then repeated in tandem by others, echoing and overlapping, marking the plurality of what we so commonly regard as utterly singular experiences. The concept of ownership disintegrates. Friends gather on the last night of the world and have no real idea of what to do. There is no sense of panic, or fear, just a somewhat uncooperative question mark hanging in the air. What would we do on our last night on Earth? Dance, drink, say everything we have left unsaid? Contemplate suicide? Or have completely inane conversations and eat dry spaghetti? The willingness to explore all of these avenues is one of Sun’s strengths; the revelation that there may be no revelation at the end of days, that it is an insurmountable concept which may not engender profound acts, but ordinary, seemingly purposeless and therefore sincerely human ones.
Though broken frequently by the moving of furniture for short vignettes (in such an abstract piece, surely we could do without?) and the impenetrability of these shorter pieces which, in failing to be cognizant of their audience are not merely abstruse but dispassionate, the fall of the world is greatly held together by Pete Malkin’s beautifully rich sound design, which rumbles, ticks and echoes through the acoustics of the space that the cast so often find themselves fighting against vocally.
Earlier perspicacity does not follow the production into the second act, as the survivors build a new world with seemingly no understanding of the morals and instincts that guided the old one. Gone is the sagacity of shared human experience, of love and intuition; this is a world lacking books, fed by necessity, confused, questing and uncomfortable. What was earlier marked by gentle suggestion begins to feel like forced narrative. Though it is arguably a piece which offers an impossibility of satisfactory conclusion, there is an occasionally glimpsed richness of thought beneath Sun; even as the numbness of its characters invades the pews.