Dark Noon

Tue Biering
Aviva Studios

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Dark Noon Credit: Sõren Meisner
Dark Noon Credit: Sõren Meisner
Dark Noon Credit: Sõren Meisner
Dark Noon Credit: Sõren Meisner
Dark Noon Credit: Sõren Meisner

The title of this hit from last year's Edinburgh Fringe is a play on that of one of the most famous American westerns, and indeed it begins, on the bare, dust-coloured thrust space onto which the audience looks down, with a slow-motion gunfight, complete with tumbleweed rolling across the stage—played by one of the actors.

The western movie is portrayed as the epitome of American self-mythologising, of the white Europeans civilising this unforgiving land, which they have exported around the world; in fact, the show ends with reflections by the South African actors on their first encounters with the form as children and the effect it had on them, even the one brought up in a house with no TV and, in fact, no electricity.

This story begins with Europeans who were poor and starving in their own countries crossing the Atlantic for a better life. Those who survived the journey went on a land grab, where if they settled in a place they owned it, but this conflicted with the philosophy of those they called Indians, who believed no one owns the land. The battle is portrayed as an American Football game, Settlers v Natives, complete with scores and commentary on the big screen, which the Natives win—until the Settlers bring out their guns. This shift between laughter and shock happens frequently.

Of course, slavery comes into the story, in one of several parts that use members of the audience, who are marked on their foreheads and then auctioned off—again both funny and uncomfortable. Then there is the gold rush and gold fever, and full-sized buildings take shape on the stage to create what looks like a frontier town from a western, with a bar, a church, houses, a bank, a jailhouse and later a Chinese restaurant and a Coca Cola seller, all assembled from timber frames in front of the audience. There is even a railroad, built by cheap Chinese labour—at which there are protests by the white workers about immigrants taking their jobs, which is both ironic, given the story being told, and still very familiar.

The sightlines become awkward with all of these buildings on stage, and so they make extensive use of cameras to project some scenes onto the large screen at the back, as well as for some narration to link the scenes. This town is all-male and violence is the only way they know how to communicate, until women are brought in, but mostly as prostitutes. More audience members are brought onto stage into the church and the bar, until the 'genocide' when they are rounded up by gunmen and penned behind fencing, with disturbing music to create an intimidating atmosphere.

Technically, this is very impressive with great use of cameras as storytelling devices that emphasise the link with movies, and it can be fascinating to watch the buildings take shape right in front of you. Many of the scenes are entertaining and effective in making their point, though there are lulls that make it drag at times, including the rather low-key ending, coming after more than an hour and a half on seats that aren't anything like as comfortable as those in the main theatre.

This story of the violence and depravation inherent in the building of America largely comes across well, but little of it seems unfamiliar for a story that is said to be looking at these myths from a different angle and from an outsider's point of view. As someone who grew up in the UK, who may have played 'Cowboys and Indians' as a child in the '70s but was never particularly into western movies and has always had a cynical attitude towards the 'American Dream' as an adult, perhaps I am as much an outsider to these stories, if not a victim of them, but it will be interesting to see how it plays in the US when it transfers there later in the year. It's an interesting counterpoint to Hamilton, which closed here in Manchester just a couple of weeks ago.

But the approach to telling the story theatrically is fresh and interesting, and it's great that shows like this are now being brought to Manchester, and not just in festival time.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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