Saturday 26 January 2008, Arnolfini, Bristol
Nightfall has been a long time in the making and, after seeing a couple of quite different work-in-progress versions, I was looking forward to seeing the finished work. Unfortunately I found it to be a pretty flawed show. A shame, as I do think there's a good idea buried in there... but it needs digging out. The good thing is that I think the company recognise this - I know they made some key changes to the following day's show - and they've got a few weeks to work on it before the main body of the tour.
So what went wrong? Well, let's not start there; let's start with where it worked. That title for starters. "Nightfall" is a gloriously evocative starting point for the audience, as well as the theatre-makers. The fact that the show is scheduled to coincide with nightfall (4.40pm in January in Bristol) makes it all the more exciting... I love it when you can clash the heightened focus of a theatre show with the 'real' world... It becomes totally about the then and there. And this was drawn on in the work, with the performers gatecrashing the outside world at regular intervals and measuring the light levels as the night came down. This worked particularly well at Arnolfini, because the theatre loading doors opened directly onto the busy quayside. Revolutionary, it might not be, but to my mind, there's not much better value for money than watching the unsuspecting public being ambushed by a nice bit of performance (and when I say 'a nice bit of performance', I'm not talking no crusty jugglers).
This action of regularly leaving the space, measuring the falling light levels and announcing (through a megaphone) how the activity outside was changing (or not), was crucial in enriching the work inside the space. Effectively, it gave the work a context. The little things, the pretend things, the text-book fact things that formed the main content of the show, were placed in the same frame as that bigger, inexorable falling into darkness, which enveloped us all as we watched. Dynamically, it was important too, as it cut through the fairly boisterous rhythm of the piece with a slower tempo, a stillness and a greater tension.
Unfortunately they stopped repeating this action halfway through the show - ironically, before night had completely fallen. At this point, he work also shifts to a darker, quieter tone, getting gradually smaller and quieter until it ends.
Hmmm... so going back to what went wrong...
Well, pulling no punches, I'd say it lacked rigour and conviction. The piece started in one place and definitely ended in another, but as an audience member, I didn't feel part of that journey. Of course, this was the premiere performance and I can imagine the company being a bit jittery, but the work is more than just the quality of the performances; and in this case, neither the content nor the structure pulled me in either. For a company that prides itself on being unafraid of the audience, the performances were insular to the point where I struggled even to navigate the relationships between the performers on stage. It was as if the show was broken and then patched together awkwardly; with everyone not just nervous that it might fall apart again, but unsure if it was even back together in the right shape.
But then, that sort of patchwork process is how a lot of devised theatre gets put together - built from fragments of experimentation. The mash-up of presentation styles - radio DJ to kids TV science show to game show to post-party conversation and so on - can work well in terms of reframing ideas and pulling audience focus to different perspectives. But in this case, for me, all it did was reveal a lack of anything behind the surface. They told us things, but seemingly for no reason - or certainly for no dynamic or compelling reason. These facts did not accumulate into a greater understanding of a greater whole. They revealed nothing.
And unfortunately, that was the problem. They seemed to have nothing to say. Even with an hour and a half of our attention and a starting point that could have taken us on any number of journeys, we didn't go anywhere. Not even into darkness.
A radical rework is called for.