Whist

22/07/17

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s a rainy morning in Edinburgh, the perfect time to seek escape from reality. Upstairs in the bar at the Festival theatre may seem an unlikely location for such an escape, but it’s soon to be transformed into a landscape of the imagination, courtesy of dance company AOE and some nifty virtual reality headsets. Helpers are on hand to show us initially around what looks like a random selection of rather unprepossessing objects; we are told that, when these shapes are looked at through our headsets, they will unlock a series of sequences inspired by the work of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

So, we allow ourselves to be fitted out with said headsets and we regard the first object we come to and… wow, this actually works! All of a sudden, I am standing mid-air in the centre of a dilapidated room, a room I can see in perfect detail, whichever way I choose to look. I can’t help but notice a rather ominous wooden chest in the corner and, as I watch (rather nervously, it has to be said), a woman emerges from the box and starts to chalk obscure symbols all over the wooden floor…

It’s hard to fully describe the impact of these ‘visions’. There’s a kind of voyeuristic pleasure in observing the various characters that wander in and out of the (seemingly unconnected) sequences and, often, a startling moment when they look directly at me and I become convinced that they know I am here, that they can see me watching them. The scenes range from the creepy to the baffling to the vaguely erotic. In my favourite sequence, I’m standing on a dinner table, my feet resting on a plate of bloody hearts. Around me, three diners are tucking in to the raw meat, drinking wine and shooting me challenging looks. I feel obliged to keep spinning around to make sure I take in all of their reactions. One of them looks a bit handy with a steak knife and I get the distinct impression they don’t much like me standing in the middle of their dinner…

There’s no through-storyline here. Each individual scenario is something that could have evolved from a dream or, more accurately, a nightmare. Birth seems to be a recurring theme and also, the subjugation of women. There’s a moment when I really want to step in to help somebody who is being manhandled, but I can’t, because I’m not actually there even though it feels like I am – and then there’s a moment when I suddenly find myself drifting alone through the cosmos and I nearly cry out with the wonder of it. I look down and it feels like I could fall forever…

The experience lasts an hour (which is probably just about the right duration) and I have to say, it’s pretty intense. For a while after it’s over, I have the conviction that the real word I’ve returned to is pretty damned strange (particularly when I spot Jarvis Cocker standing on the other side of the road) but that feeling soon passes. After all this is Edinburgh and the festival is fast approaching. Why shouldn’t Jarvis Cocker be around? Whist feels decidedly like it should be part of the festival, but it’s here right now and it’s one of the strangest, most immersive experiences I’ve ever had.

I urge everyone who can to pop along to the Festival Theatre and give it a try. It’s there until early August. There’s a limit of twenty participants per show, so get those tickets booked and dive right in. You’ll be intrigued, delighted, maybe even a little bit freaked… but I’m pretty sure you won’t be bored, not for a moment.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

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