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Soporific: Above Me The Wide Blue Sky at the Young Vic (***)

Fevered Sleep, renowned makers of installation theatre, have brought their latest project to the Young Vic: a mesmerising monologue with the loose theme of “nature”. While it’s very pretty and beguiling, the torpid pace and rhythmical delivery is more of an exercise in staying awake than a piece of engaging theatre.

It’s rare to equate a company’s name so directly with their product, but Fevered Sleep’s latest Above Me The Wide Blue Sky almost induced a state of fevered sleep in me – no matter how much I tried to focus, I found myself slipping into a state of almost-repose, trying desperately to stay awake as the combination of rolling clouds, dimly-flickering lights and repetitive dialogue almost sent me into a stupor.

However, I’m finding it difficult to define that as a criticism of the show: the way it’s staged, directed and delivered seem to be directly designed to induce this kind of state. The piece is set in the round, with a square of chalky blocks forming a stage. Various standard lamps give off a dim glow, flickering along with three small projectors beaming rain droplets onto some of the flooring blocks. Above the audience and around the whole space are large projector screens featuring a beautiful, roiling cloudscape. A soundscape redolent of Brian Eno’s more minimalist fare occasionally peaks, but mostly just rumbles along in the background.

After a while, an actress (Laura Cubitt) enters the performance space with a Whippet (Leuca) – she spends an inordinate amount of time getting the dog to sit, then starts her monologue: a long, disconnected collection of natural images. These got longer and more involved until the middle section, where she describes a childhood home and how it has changed. She then proceeds to recount the images she began with in reverse order, changing present to past tense. Meanwhile, the lights flicker and occasionally go out, with a sound as if everything is powering down, only to all start up again.

Fevered Sleep define this piece as an installation and a performance, but I’m more inclined to think of it as the former – there’s no story per se. Various images and ideas are created, but seem to be discarded as soon as they are uttered. The closest I can compare it to is art-house cinema in the vein of the Koyaanisqatsi series or, if I was being less kind, a rather well made screen saver. It’s mesmerising and very beautiful, but I’m struggling to accept it as a piece of theatre.

Either way, it smacks a little of overdesign: how standard lamps and projectors help the sound and cloudscape I couldn’t tell you, nor what the occasional “power outage” moments were trying to imply. I could wax lyrical about it representing the night, or that nature will fail as man encroaches on it, but there’s not enough to indicate what this could be more than I myself would be imposing – and I’d hate to be the one conjecturing some po-faced overinterpretation on one aspect, let alone the whole production. And what the dog was doing on stage is beyond me, since it’s only purpose seemed to be to sit down – or maybe the time it took to make it do so meant something clever too?

There’s really not much I can say if I don’t want to conjecture: the piece gives you so little. The monologue feels less like a meaningful piece than an impressive exercise in memory from Cubitt, which her strained delivery certainly implies as well. While all of the other elements paint a pretty picture, it’s lack of specific points makes it all feel rather pointless.

I’d still recommend it though: it’s really very soothing. Like such cultural behemoths as Koyaanisquatsi, there are a thousand interpretations you could take from the piece, and it should make for lively discussion. And if that doesn’t tickle you, sitting in the round watching a front row of critics trying desperately not to fall asleep certainly made for a fun evening for me.


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