Photo: Deanne Jones
Yana Meerzon has seen this production by the National Theatre of Scotland, presented in Romania during the XV Europe Theatre Festival (in English with Romanian subtitles).
In his much quoted dictum that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’, Theodor Adorno contemplates the ethical responsibility of an artist to speak about and on behalf of the victims of the Holocaust, the 20th century’s major horror. This phrase and Adorno’s concern acquire similar echoing today when theatre, literature, film, and other media begin to seek more appropriate ways to represent the atrocities of migration, global terrorism and civil wars through arts.
In its production Last Dream (On Earth), written and directed by Kai Fischer, The National Theatre of Scotland, a recipient of the 13th Europe Prize Theatrical Realities, XV Europe Theatre Festival, approaches this issue with all the elegance, sincerity and respect that representing the current migration crisis on stage demands.
As the title suggests, Last Dream (On Earth) is constructed at the intersection of seemingly unrelated material: the actual transcripts of the tape-recorded communications between Yuri Gagarin and ground control that took place during his flight to space and the interviews Kai Fischer made during his visits to a refugee centre in Malta and his stay in Morocco. The themes of these two story-lines are however closely related. Both of them speak of the courage one needs to encounter the unknown, be it Gagarin’s decision to volunteer for the space program or the peoples’ misery that forces them to flee their homes.
As an artistic whole, this production questions the purpose of the journey as a form of self-sacrifice. Gagarin strongly believed in his cause: his traveling to space, to the unknown, and potentially to his death, was justified by his desire to provide mankind with the new possibilities. The refugees, often young girls and unaccompanied children, the most vulnerable of the population, do not suffer for the greater good of humanity. They run from poverty, war, illness, natural disasters, in hopes to find stability and a future. Not all journeys come to happy conclusions; and even those who make it often disappear within the bureaucratic systems that await them.
To bring the message across, Kai Fischer refers to the mixed language of the documentary theatre and immersive radio drama. Made of different transcripts of Gagarin’s communications from space that the company consulted for the production, and the refugees’ stories that Fischer edited, Last Dream (On Earth) reaches a new level of poeticity. It offers the audience members a special level of intimacy with the impossible and brings them in touch with the unimaginable.
Known mostly for his work as the set and lighting designer, this time Fischer opted to reject the power of image to bring forth the power of sound. On the dark lit stage, there are five performers standing across the proscenium. At the microphones, they narrate the two stories while also playing musical instruments. At the back, one can see occasional projections of water, stars, and the earth.
Visually, therefore, there is not much to follow. The dramatic action takes place in the space of the headphones, which the spectators are instructed to put on as they enter the auditorium. The urgency of the action – the preparations for the takeoff, Gagarin’s space-ship transgressing the orbit, the conversations between him and the operator; the refugees’ stories, the sounds of the waves crashing against their boat, the brisk telephone exchanges between the migrants and their families – is transmitted to the audience through the immersive sound, which at the same time is performed in front of us, on stage.
A type of sound play, this show creates a high level of intimacy between the action on stage and the action in our imagination. It proves that the immersive technologies can restore the emotional impact that word and sound used to have on theatre audiences back in the times of Shakespeare or even not so long ago, before the reign of TV and internet. The immersive sound becomes specifically useful when an artist seeks new devices not only to tell the story of migration and suffering in the most delicate but truthful manner, but also when he/she wants to shake the audience out of our numbness to this suffering caused by its incomprehensibility, closeness and media’s representation of it.
Theatre is a highly communal experience, in which sound plays one of the major roles. Our ability to follow the action through all our senses, specifically hearing, and at the same time to be able to sense others also watching, listening and reacting to it creates a special connection within the group. However, as soon as we are asked to put the headphones on, we lose this connection. Watching Last Dream (On Earth) in the privacy of an individual headphone, seated together as a group but isolated from each other by the sound device, we become too open to manipulation, put through sound, into a very intimate proximity to the action. We become almost as defenseless as Gagarin, when he flew into space and as vulnerable as the refugees trying to cross the open sea. The sound transmitted directly to our ears, in isolation of this individual experience, makes it impossible for the audience to keep emotionally detached from what our imagination creates for us under the guidance of polyphonic sounds that reach us from the stage.
In this crossover between the documentary approach and the intimacy we experience with the narrated action created through the sound design, Fischer retains our attention with no effort. He does not aim to make us feel anything similar to Gagarin’s experience or that of the refugees. Such desire on the director’s part would be unwise and unethical. What this production masterfully does is that it makes us, as the audience, face our own vulnerability, it forces us to encounter our own human selves –that we as individuals should never be under the illusion that we can share or even really understand the suffering of those who have been through such human catastrophes as war, mass migration, or genocide. Using any form of communication that appears to make this possible reduces that form of art to a level of unbearable inhumanity. In this production, in other words, Fisher appears to echo Adorno’s statement about ethics.
Last Dream (On Earth): Presented by The National Theatre of Scotland in association with Tron Theatre (XV Europe Theatre Festival, Craiova, Romania; in English with Romanian subtitles); written and directed by Kai Fischer with Sound Design by Matt Padden and Costume Design by Lisa Sangster; featuring Tyler Collins, Kimisha Lewis, Thierry Mabonga, TAdura Onashile and Gameli Tordzro.