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Review: DARKFIELD

Rating:

A spellbinding collection of immersive theatre experiences.

After a sell-out season in April 2023, DARKFIELD has returned to Sydney. Produced by Realscape Productions, it invites viewers to enter a pitch-black performance space, slip on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, and be guided through stories about existentialism, the human condition, and the world around us. With stunning audio, innovative production elements, and compelling narratives, this is immersive theatre at its finest.

COMA, an audio experience part of DARKFIELD. Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic.

At the outset, a few elements about DARKFIELD need to be made clear. First, there is nothing to see in it. Rather than a traditional show with visuals and live actors, DARKFIELD is a largely audio-driven experience. This experience takes place in a large shipping container fitted with lights and noise-cancelling headphones. Once each audience member has their headphones on, the lights switch off and the show plays out aurally. Second, DARKFIELD is not one audio play experience, but four. Each experience has its own title, story, characters, and shipping container. These experiences function independently of one another – there is no overarching plotline connecting them, and tickets are sold per experience, not as a bundle. Third, each show is short. None run longer than 40 minutes, letting audiences to experience all four in one night.

Since DARKFIELD consists of four unrelated audio experiences, each experience has been reviewed separately. They appear in descending order of quality, but make no mistake – the event as a whole is stunning. DARKFIELD strikes the perfect balance between theatrical innovation and audio drama. Each experience is masterfully crafted, with high quality production and performances. Though not every one is perfect, there is so much to like.

FLIGHT: The strongest experience in DARKFIELD has to be FLIGHT. With its shipping container repurposed into an airplane cabin, the show plays on the thought experiment of Schrödinger’s cat: an animal that, while inside a closed box, is both dead and alive to the outside world. In this experience the audience is that cat, and the airplane cabin is the box. It’s an interesting concept brought powerfully to life by realism. The set is a picture-perfect cabin, with laminated safety cards, functioning seat belts, and jittering airplane chairs . The audio recording captures a plane flight beautifully – crying babies, the low hum of the engine, and sounds of stewards moving across the cabin can all be heard, and are simply perfect. The key characters in the story, a stewardess and plane pilot, are both daunting and endearing. Through impressive audio production, they can be heard both near or far and to one’s left or right, depending on the stage of the story. Ending without a clear resolution adds to the overall mystique – does the audience survive the flight, or do they not? – and makes for a profoundly thought-provoking conclusion. Fantastic overall.

EULOGY, an audio experience part of DARKFIELD. Photo credit Katie Edwards.

EULOGY: A close second to FLIGHT is EULOGY. Here, the show’s shipping container is filled with mesh storage lockers – each one large enough for a human to sit in. The story involves the listener needing to check in to a hotel and prepare a eulogy. Assisted by their ‘companion’, someone to help with these tasks, the story quickly turns into a survival challenge. Of particular note for this experience is its cohesive storytelling, engaging characters, and interactive elements. The narrative is expertly put together, thoroughly intriguing and filled with twists and turns. It is impossible to predict what will happen next, and that only adds to the fun. The companion character adds to this unpredictability. Listeners will quickly build a strong connection with their companion, which is tested the further into the story they get. The recording has a delightful ASMR quality to it, and the performer captures all parts of the companion’s personality wonderfully. Finally, EULOGY is partly interactive – each headset has an attached microphone, which the listener is occasionally invited to speak in to. Incorporating the listener’s comments turns the piece into a choose-your-own-adventure story. Though this could have been utilised more, the overall experience is highly enjoyable nonetheless.

COMA: Putting listeners in the mind of a coma patient, COMA‘s greatest strength is its performance space. The inside of its shipping container is painted a dull cream and stacked with three-person bunk beds. The audience lie on those beds for the whole experience. Each bunk has a small metal tray to its side, holding a pill they are invited to take. All of this sets the scene perfectly for the performance – a monologue by an individual monitoring the bunks. Unfortunately, this monologue is not entirely compelling. Its stream-of-consciousness style structure quickly loses steam, and there is little else for listeners to connect with. Though the ending tries to contrast this, and the show incorporates scents in a fun way, it is not as compelling as the other experiences available.

SÉANCE: SÉANCE invites listeners to participate in a fictional séance, a communication with dead spirits. Playing out in a shipping container decked with red velvet seats and a long table covered by a white tablecloth, its horror element really shines through. The audio production is perfectly executed, featuring aural jump scares, menacing sound effects, and the inclusion of the listener in the story. However, this story is only somewhat engaging. Limited by a short run time, audiences don’t get the opportunity to learn about the show’s characters or care about the unfolding events. The experience falls flat without this connection, and results in a rather hollow ending. Though it is fun while it lasts, a more detailed backstory would make this séance more absorbing.

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