A mocked-up circus tent and the sounds of a late-night carnival, mulched, distorted, as in a dream: Offenbach’s Can Can, a crowd laughing then booing, a dog barking, machinery churning, the wheels of a Ghost Train grinding metal on metal. Coloured beams break the fourth wall to illuminate seats in the auditorium, casting a pattern of what looks to be an oscillating and unravelling DNA thread. Drum roll. Enter an ageing ringmaster and a pair of dancers dressed in a caricature of 19th century Toulouse Lautrec splendour, all ruffled petticoats and buttoned boots. Roll up, roll up – the show has begun! Time is of the essence! Time is tight!
What looks to be burlesque romp dissolves into something far more dangerous. Over the next hour we meet a succession of extraordinary characters, a kind of Tarot of distorted archetypes: Adolph and Rudolph, a two-headed tuxedoed tap-dancer; Boatswain Bob, the living skeleton rising from a bag of rags; Agasfer, a melancholy conductor of the universe who spears himself through the ears, head, mouth and (no!) eyes; Omi and Naomi, the ‘spiders of the universe’ who spin the patterns written on the sky. Then there’s the lovers: a silver-headed bride (Judith) wielding a dagger, poised over a table of neon skulls, accompanied on a futuristic cello by a headless robotic Holofernes. ‘Man is but a machine and woman is but a toy’.
In this and other sections there is a strong echo of blackSKYwhite’s first massive Edinburgh Fringe hit, Bertrand’s Toys, winner of a Total Theatre Award in 2000 – particularly in the beautiful and extraordinary physical performance by Marcella Soltan, whose limbs seem able to bend in any direction, and whose movements switch from seductive swerves to robotic jerks in a flash. Other imagery – particularly the nightmare nursery visions of mis-shaped babies, terrifying teddy-bear Pierrots wielding trolleys, and startling stabs of candy-pink lighting, remind me of their Aurora Nova/London International Mime Festival hit The Anatomy of Insects. As is often the way with blackSKYwhite shows, one wonders how so much can be created onstage by just four performers. And as always the stage sings with moments of extraordinary transformation, as human bodies twist and turn in every direction, the distinction between flesh, costume, mask, or animated object constantly breaking down, so it is often hard to work out exactly what we are witnessing. Is that a person dancing the skeleton’s sickly stick-legged dance of death, or a manipulated puppet?
Omega is a truly total theatre. The dramaturgy of the piece is driven by the three-way powerhouse of soundtrack, lighting design, and physical action. The soundtrack is created by experimental musician Michael Begg, an extraordinary multi-layered production embracing pre-recorded texts in Russian, Romany and English (including the voice of legendary alternative musician Little Annie) and musical sounds of all sorts. Electro Swing, Balkan Beats, and schmaltzy showbiz favourites like ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ vie with soulful musical saw and ear-splitting electronic drones. It marries well with director Dimitri Aryupin’s scenography, together creating a textured assault on the senses, the modern embodiment of Artaud’s vision of a theatre that regales the spectator with the truthful precipitates of dreams.
Perversely played in the daytime, Omega is a moon energy show. Its interest is the nature of time, and in particular the fear of the finite (ageing, death, decay, the constant tick of the clock: ‘a hand turns on a face and the face is watching you’); and the even greater fear of the infinite (imagine a snake eating its own poisoned tail forever, to paraphrase a line in the soundtrack). Along the way it explores the battle of binary divides – light and shadow, matter and anti-matter, various conjugations of heavenly and not-so-heavenly twins.
Omega is a fairground ride: thrilling, uncomfortable, scary. It’s also a philosophical reflection on the nature of existence, and an exploration of the dark matter that continuously heaves and swirls just below our conscious awareness. It’s not circus, it’s not cabaret – it’s deep dangerous disturbing theatre. You will emerge blinking into the daylight shaken and stirred. Be warned.