Lecture Notes on a Death Scene
Camden People's Theatre
Six thirty on Sunday evening is an unusual time to be attending a press show, but then this is an unusual piece of theatre. I was the only member of the audience and that was when there happened to be a performance available that didn’t clash with any other show.
This half-hour-long play, developed at Farnham Maltings, Central School of Speech and Drama, The Lowry and PULSE Festival and directed by the author, places the spectator at the centre of the experience. But is it happening to you or are you sharing what’s happening to someone else? Its structure is apparently inspired by a short story by Jorge Luis Borges El Jardín de Senderos que se Bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths). It does not retell that tale of a Chinese spy but takes its idea of history not being a single path but one with many branches in time and space that can lead to different histories.
Having donned a hooded jacket, the solo audience follows a white line to a leather armchair beside a low table with a reading lamp, which provides the only light. Once comfortable, they are ready for the performance to begin. Out of the darkness they hear a voice. Apparently they are a student in a lecture room, later they may become the lecturer himself, a passenger in his car. Which of them is it that ends up dead?
It is not easy to follow what twists the story is taking, let alone explore the theory being followed. The disembodied voice is distorted slightly by being for much of the time too close to the microphone and it is often not easy to understand, partly perhaps because of the hood, partly because its soporific quality dulls the brain creating a conflict between the concentration to follow meaning and its lulling invitation to relax.
In fact I found myself much more fascinated by the techniques in use which include restricted vision, tilting mirrors and an unseen presence resting on one’s shoulder as well as a live actor seen beside one through what stands in for the driving mirror of a car. This is an excellent performance from Philip Desmeules who manages to make eye-contact as though you are the person whose voice you can hear reply to him. If he is also the recorded voice (presumably, since only a single actor is credited) it is a pity that sound designer Alexander Garfath didn’t record him better—or was that in itself all intentional?
I must confess that I found myself neither moved nor especially involved as I responded to instructions given. As director, Liam Jarvis has devised a very clever presentation, but what registered of his script did not sufficiently exploit its potential either as narrative or as immersive experience.
“Lecture Notes on a Death Scene” runs at Camden People’s Theatre until 11th December 2011
Reviewer: Howard Loxton