By Jen McGregor
Somewhere off Leith Walk, in a surprisingly tranquil garden, an audience sits half-hidden in the dark, clad in black ponchos so they blend into the unlit foliage. A performance area is picked out with a handful of dramatic lights and a throbbing pulse plays through individual headphones. It’s an impressive setup – the eerie lighting, the billowing fog, the cool night air. There are audible gasps as we appear to hear bees zipping past our heads and birds twittering in the bushes.
Sadly, this setup is let down by an inadequate script. Even as the show dazzles with its technical prowess, mixing the sound live at every performance, it falls short as an engaging piece of theatre. Chris Lee’s text longs to be lyrical, but instead of depth or content it offers a series of increasingly tortured similes and metaphors.
Emma Anderson puts in a valiant solo performance. Her physicality is excellent, despite the strange decision to costume her in an oversized duffel coat and a pair of tatty trainers. She speaks her lines with slightly overwrought passion, unable to avoid sounding rather like a Marks & Spencer’s advert during the long descriptive passages.
A glance at the programme suggests that the piece is based on the myth of Daphne (who was turned into a tree by Apollo). This may have been the inspiration for setting the play in a garden, but the legend does not appear to have had much of an influence beyond that. It’s the tale of a young girl who absorbs some flowery ideas about love from her deceased parents, then grows up to have an obsessive, abusive affair with a married man. Her vulnerability and isolation feel glossed over, all sense of deep pain and loss replaced with prettified turns of phrase. This makes it difficult to feel any empathy for the nameless girl as she begins to realise and deny the ill treatment she receives at her lover’s hands. The fact that she is wholly dependent on him and prepared to submit to any treatment for his pleasure does not feel like a choice made by someone in the grip of obsession, it feels like the only thing that a character who is just a girl, just somebody’s “little wren”, could ever have done. The big dramatic plot twist is clear from the first sentence, but even if you miss that it’s eye-rollingly inevitable based on the girl’s lack of substance.
The show is worth watching as an experience and for the brilliantly-realised soundscape, but it might benefit from tuning out the script.
Dark Matter runs at Summerhall until 24 August at 22.00. Running time is 40 minutes.