Lights in the Darkness

Colliding particles, sunshine on a forest path, overlapping monologues, a beautifully lit empty theatre, and a candle lighting ceremony – Dorothy Max Prior samples the delights of the installation programme at Brighton Festival 2021 

The invitation came in early May for a press viewing of Semiconductor’s latest installation work, Halo. So used was I to everything these days being online that it took two read-throughs of the email to be sure that it meant I was expected to actually go to the Attenborough Centre and experience something indoors, for real. 

And what an extraordinary initiation back into live experience it turned out to be! Halo is a full-on, visceral, immersive installation. You step into a great dark space – the whole of the large theatre auditorium at ACCA has been given over to it – feeling a little uncertain of your footing, your eyes blinking under a constellation of flashing and flickering snow-white lights, a low hum and drone shuddering through the space. Suddenly, the lights explode into a frenzy of activity, and the noise level rises into a cacophony of sounds at different frequencies and resonances.

Semiconductor: Halo. Photo Claudia Marcelloni

Then, emerging from the darkness you make out a large central structure. It’s cylindrical, around the size of a bandstand, but roofless; the sides made up of a large number of vertically strung piano strings, with hammers hitting at the bottom. The lights and the sounds we can hear are apparently ‘triggered and controlled’  by data collected from the ATLAS detector that forms part of the particle-collision experiments at the CERN European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva. No, I don’t understand how either – despite visiting the installation twice, reading the press release and programme, and watching two different films – one by Semiconductor about the making process, and one from CERN itself, in which learned scientists talk of advanced mathematics as a kind of branch of philosophy, saying that both language and visual imagery have reached the limits of their capabilities to explain what’s happening right now with ATLAS and the Hadron Collider. Apparently, we have entered a new reality. Semiconductor’s Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt spent time as artists in residence at CERN, and Halo was then developed with support from numerous physicists (including some from University of Sussex). Having given up Physics age 14 (you could do that back in the day), I readily admit to being completely out of my depth here…

But I should make it clear that any pre-knowledge or understanding of the physics involved in this art-sci collaboration is completely unnecessary. You can, as I did quite happily, experience the piece purely as the visual, aural and physical installation work that it is. A sensory playground. Like a small child, I walked round the outside repeatedly, running my fingers along the wires (they aren’t taut enough to cut, thankfully), then knelt down to watch the little hammers striking, then went into the middle and stood still, absorbing the sounds and images all around me in glorious 360 degree sensurround. I then put my ear to one the metal poles holding the structure up, and got a fantastic echoing and reverberating soundbox sensation. A truly total experience!

From this most modern of scientific developments to that most ancient of environments: the forest. Our Northern European and Celtic lands were once densely forested, and our myths and fairy tales and books and films are awash with stories of the woods and the wilderness – from Red Riding Hood to Sweet Tooth. 

Olafur Eliasson: The Forked Forest Path

Olafur Eliasson’s The Forked Forest Path has been installed in Fabrica gallery for May and June 2021 – the venue’s previous life as a church, still replete with gothic arches and stained glass windows, adding to the fairy-tale feel. The piece is one of the Danish-Icelandic artist’s early works, made in 1998, a few years before his famous ‘sun’ (The Weather Project, commissioned for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2003). It’s kind of what it says on the tin: a path through a recreated forest in which the audience member reaches a fork, and thus a choice of routes. It is a stipulation for its recreation that galleries/festivals must only use branches and saplings sourced locally and sustainably in the making of the piece, which is good to learn.

Although I enjoy The Forked Forest Path (experienced twice) it has to be said that it feels a little tame, and substantially less immersive than other Eliasson works, such as the famous ‘tunnel of fog’ piece, Your Blind Passenger. The route is short, taking just minutes to get through, and you can always see the outside walls of the building from all points inside the ‘forest’, so there is no sense ever of being deep into the woods, nor any danger of getting lost, even for a second – although it is nice to appreciate the architecture of the building, and to see the sun shining through the stained glass windows. I walk in woods regularly, and this didn’t really replicate the experience strongly enough for me, nor add any new insights to the lore of woodlands. Perhaps the piece is aimed at people unfamiliar with woods and walking in them? It’s worth a visit, but I would suggest that going to nearby Stanmer Park (which has supplied some of the wood for this piece, alongside Foxwood Forestry) for a ‘creative walk’ in the woods could prove to be a stronger, more immersive, artistic experience…

Tim Crouch with his installation House Mother Normal

Just round the corner from Fabrica, in one of Brighton’s famous Lanes, a very different sort of installation work is sited. House Mother Normal is a screen work adapted from the 1971 novel by BS Johnson, a darling of the British avant garde literary scene in the mid-twentieth century. The novel is a dark and satirical look at the goings-on in a care home, in which the House Mother and eight ‘friends’ (we don’t call them inmates, or patients, or even clients, sneers Mother, we’re all friends) each tell their story in consecutive chapters, although all occupying the same timeframe. Here, all nine present their monologues at the same time, each framed in splendid isolation, voices cleverly spliced together, so that they rise and fall – sentences, phrases, or perhaps just isolated words leaping out at us. Mother’s voice rises above them all…

So here we are – Ron, Rosetta, Ivy, Charlie, Gloria, Sarah, Sioned, George and House Mother herself – nine lives in a day at the care home. God save us from this. Craft sessions. Pass the parcel. Exercise. Meals. Bums and poos and piles. Dribbles and drools. Grudges and gropes in the toilets. Corporal punishment, paedophilia, bestiality – it’s all here, in its nasty nakedness. All the actors are excellent. The eight characters suffering from various degrees of deterioration, degradation and senility give us resignation and resistance in equal measure. House Mother’s cruelty and perversion – shouting abuse, switching her ‘twitcher’, and panting at the thought of Ralphie the dog’s ‘long probing red tongue’– is appallingly credible. I cringe away from the screen as she breaks the fourth wall and draws us into her confidence: ‘Friend (if I may call you friend), these are also our friends…’ 

I saw it twice, once here in Duke’s Lane and before that online, and got a very different sense of the narrative each time – to the extent that I had to check with the invigilator that the piece did have a fixed soundtrack and wasn’t variable. The piece has been adapted and directed by Tim Crouch, with the films made by Shared Space and Light, and sound by Thor McIntyre. I can’t fault it conceptually or technically – the nine talking heads locked into their boxes is a brilliant way to present Johnson’s sordid and darkly funny narrative. It’s clever as can be, but leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. It feels good to leave Mother behind and get out of this oppressive dark room and back into Duke’s Lane, gulping the healing and cleansing fresh air.

Neil Bartlett: Tenebrae: Lessons Learnt in Darkness. Photo Summer Dean

Tenebrae: Lessons Learnt in Darkness, on the other hand, leaves me feeling energised and nurtured, despite it being a lamentation for the past year of collective loss. Beauty can grow out of darkness, we learn. The soul is fed, and there is catharsis. The piece, which director Neil Bartlett describes as ‘a love-letter to an empty theatre’ is created with sound designer Christopher Shutt, and lighting designer Paule Constable, working in collaboration with a team of writers, singers, and musicians. 

Fifteen local writers were commissioned to write poetic texts in response to 2020. These texts (or parts thereof) are presented as pre-recorded spoken word pieces, integrated into the soundscape – the audience experiencing them in darkness from seats on the stage of the Theatre Royal, looking out at an empty auditorium that is animated by a most wonderful scenography of lights that emerge from the darkness, highlighting a balcony or a door or a row of empty seats, then fading away gently. It is hard to imagine a more moving metaphor for the past year’s losses than this gorgeously lit empty auditorium. The texts are weaved together expertly with the sigh of a cello, and the melancholic lament of angelic voices, moving around the spoken words.

Some writers focused on the obvious losses of the past year: ‘the longest year in history’ as Lucy Naish calls it. ‘We see a woman slip from a graveside,’ says Maria Amidu, ‘She is hiding her grief, gripping her house keys’. Mark Price says: ‘In this city I see so many people. I see their pain, their fear, their anger / Held within a a jutting jaw, fidgeting hands, downcast eyes.’ And Oliwafemi Hughes Jonas says, ‘I saw us seek words to explain silence, echoes of aching loss everywhere…’

For others, the subject broadens out to embrace issues heightened rather than eased by the pandemic: the environmental crisis, Black Lives Matter, homophobia, the ongoing refugee crisis… But there is hope: ‘Our spirit will never go dark’ and ‘together our stories will be told and heard’. Then, ‘ I was able to breathe again. Suddenly, I was able to shoulder the burden and carry on.’

‘Things won’t be the same when the lights come on,’ says Sam Kenyon Hamp, ‘What is important is we’re here when they do’.

Abigail Conway: The Candle Project

Light in the darkness is an obvious metaphor for both the collective mourning process and the current emergence from the pandemic, so it is not surprising that more than one work in the Brighton Festival explores this. And also that religious or quasi-religious experience is a point of reference.

Where Neil Bartlett’s Tenebrae takes its cue from a church ritual of alternating light and darkness, using all the resources that contemporary theatre lighting can offer, Abigail Conway’s Candle Project is set in an actual church (the Spire is the deconsecrated St Mark’s Church) and mostly uses that most elemental and sacred of light forms, the candle.

Throughout the last week of May, anybody who would like to can come along to the Spire to make a traditional beeswax tapered candle, with a message for a stranger placed inside. These candles are then placed into the nave of the church.

On the last day of the installation, a small invited audience, and a much larger online audience, watch as the candles are ritualistically lit: ‘As a candle slowly burns, remnant messages left behind become glimmering beacons of hope, whispers, for others to discover and take home’. This burning-down happens over an hour. Seeing the little lights gently go out is meditative and very moving. The candles provide most of the light in the space, with just a soft wash of stage lighting enhancing the beautiful architecture of the church. The secular ceremony is accompanied by choral singing, a number of local choirs involved, the voices built into a soundscape created by the artist. All well and good, with some lovely sound design in evidence – although the choir’s choice of material is sometimes suspect, and occasionally downright cringeworthy. Do any of us ever need to hear John Lennon’s Imagine ever again, be it the original or a cover version? Not I! That aside, a really beautiful and nurturing event. 

The day after the communion ceremony, participants are invited to ‘evacuate and receive’ a message from a stranger. A message in a candle rather than a message in a bottle – how lovely!  A fitting finale to a rather gentle and subdued Brighton Festival 2021 – a festival which has placed installation work at the heart of its programme.

Featured image (top): Abigail Conway: The Candle Project. Photo Rowan Briscoe

Brighton Festival 2021 ran online from 1 May, with live events from 17 May. The guest director was poet, author and broadcaster Lemn Sissay.

Semiconductor: Halo was presented 19 May to 4 June 2021 at Attenborough Centre for the Creative arts, University of Sussex 

Olafur Eliasson: The Forked Forest Path opened 18 May and continues at Fabrica until 20 June 2021

Tim Crouch: House Mother Normal ran online 1 May to 9 June 2021, and as an installation at 8 Duke’s Lane from 17 May to 6 June. 

Neil Bartlett: Tenebrae: Lessons Learnt in Darkness installation ran from dawn (4.45am) to 5pm on 22 May at the Theatre Royal Brighton, with a live performance of Couperin’s Leçons de ténèbres at 7.45pm. The writers’ texts are avialable as online short films, here:

Abigail Conway: The Candle Project ran candle-making sessions 24–28 May, 12–7pm. The Lighting Ceremony Livestream was broadcast live on 29 May at 8pm, and is currently (June 2021) still available online 

Neil Bartlett: Tenebrae: Lessons Learnt in Darkness. Photo Summer Dean
This entry was posted in Writings and tagged on by .
Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing.