Dark Matter

Conceived by Mayra Stergiou and written by Eirini Dermitzaki and Mayra Stergiou
Vertebra Theatre
Tristan Bates Theatre
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In Dark Matter, Vertebra Theatre, a London-based group of European theatre makers, has mounted a very ambitious production that combines puppetry, dance, miniature models and video. It is a delicate study of dementia that also explores astrophysics for at its centre is the puppet figure of former astrophysicist Alfie. Not everything it attempts is successful but its overall effect is very moving.

A model townscape and little plastic figures of people are videoed live and projected on a screen at the rear of the stage to coincide with locations. It’s a little like the technology of some of Katie Mitchell’s productions and has some of the same kind of “look how it is done” interest, but it doesn’t work well and adds nothing to the main theme, except for the opening when an artist’s action figure model is videoed floating in a small water tank. Coloured liquids swirling around it produce an increasing opaqueness that sets the play’s theme with a visualisation of the confusion and increasing befuddlement of conditions like Alzheimer’s.

Alfie sometimes remembers his childhood refusals to go to church, says he’s an atheist and wants to be an astronaut. He reassures a remembered mother who worries for his soul’s sake that “if you go to Hell, I’ll come in my spaceship to save you.” He knows that he used to be an astrophysicist, tells a carer about Newton and his apple, sometimes talks of dark matter and even recollects his theory that the Universe and our brains have similar structures, connecting systems of atoms that mean that the universe, like us, has an inner life and can experience emotions.

But he also thinks he’s in a hotel, not a care home, that he will be going back to his house and he won’t put on slippers because he has to give a presentation, asking “have you ever seen anyone wear slippers to a conference?”

Ideas about space are realised as a ballet of torchlights representing celestial bodies and tiny coloured bulbs may be atoms or ideas: this is elegantly done but only partially successful.

What works very effectively and becomes very moving under Mayra Stergiou’s direction is the puppetry creating Alfie and his interaction with his carer.

Head puppeteer is Adam Courting, who voices the elderly Alfie, assisted by Aurora Adams and Alicia Britt, who voices the young Alfie. The Spanish carer, who can’t understand the book he wrote but tries very hard to understand him, is played by Piedad Albarracin Seiquer. “You can’t help me,” says Alfie. “I can try,” is her answer and you believe her.

“I’m alone,” says Alfie at one point and puppet maker Kelly Frost has captured that bleakness, a sense of loss and desperation in the head he has created for Alfie. His eyes are always look straight at you, baffled and pleading.

What happens when a star dies, asked Alfie the astrophysicist; “what happens,” this play asks, “in our brains when we have no starlight left.”

Those eyes will stay with me for a long time.

Dark Matter forms part of the A Piece of the Continent festival presented by The Actors Centre and Voila! Europe that responds to Brexit by celebrating European theatre makers in the UK and runs 8–27 April.

Howard Loxton