COMA at Edinburgh Fringe 2019: a reliably effective hit
Another year, another Darkfield show. I find it slightly improbable that audio-based experiences inside pitch-black shipping containers have become somewhat of a Fringe institution, but three years after Séance, the company are back with their strangest work yet. If the constant crowds outside Summerhall’s terrace waiting for the 30-minute experience are any indication, the idea is as popular as ever.
Like all Darkfield shows, the interior of the shipping container is beautifully themed but the show itself takes place in pitch darkness. After a mercifully brief safety chat we’re ushered onto the set, which is strangely anachronistic. By the door, there’s a coffee machine that looks as if it’s both from the future and the 1950’s, with vintage signage that further cements the uncertainty. Triple-tier bunk beds line the walls on either side. The container looks much bigger from the inside than it did from outside.
Like the coffee machine, our beds are both futuristic and retro – cream coloured, neatly rectangular and sporting geometric yet sterile pillows. We could be in a spaceship or a mid-20th Century hospital and the setting would be completely apt. We’re told the beds on the right are slightly longer for taller audience members; I’m 6’4 and can just, barely lie down flat on one of them. If you’re taller than me, I don’t see how it would be physically possible to take part (the bunks have solid wooden boards at the head and feet). There are also, of course, headphones which we’re told to don almost immediately. The lights click off, aside from glowing red bulbs above our heads. A disembodied voice tells us that this is our last opportunity to leave. It’s impossible to say whether the voice comes from a speaker or from the headphones.
There is a pill, we are told, beside our heads. I fumble a bit in the dark but yes, there is definitely a pill in a little dish by my head, glowing in the crimson light. I swear that wasn’t there when we first came in (there’s no way I wouldn’t have noticed it). Anyways, we take the pill – it’s probably just… I don’t know… whatever the fuck pills are made of, but we take it nonetheless. The red light turns off.
At last year’s Flight, I found myself able to see quite a bit of the room if I opened my eyes, so had to keep them squished shut in order to maintain immersion. With COMA, on the other hand, when the lights are off I couldn’t see a thing, which proved to be a vast improvement – I don’t see how this particular experience would work if we were required to close our eyes.
There is a voice, talking to us – asking us to visualise the room. Because of the binaural audio, it sounds like the voice is walking up and down the shipping container, making coffee and conversing with us. Like other Darkfield shows, his monologue begins to descend into nonsense, pseudo-scientific psychobabble – I’m never quite sure whether the creators of the show actually believe this shit, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say they don’t. We are to imagine the voice in a physical form, and to imagine him coming to talk to us.
I’m not really sure how to describe the rest of the experience of COMA, other than that it tries to replicate the experience of being… well… in a coma. As I’ve never been in a coma, I can’t really say whether or not it’s a successful experiment, but it’s certainly a unique, unsettling piece of work that’s well worth the detour and small admission fee. Flight played around with sights and sounds to create the idea that multiple universes were clashing around you, whereas Coma takes a much more minimal route, introducing a variety of convincing, evocative smells and minute sensations – a breeze from an open vent, a shift in air from a curtain being pulled back there, an unplaceable subwoofer thump lurking in the distance.
The experience’s use of common, instantly recognisable scents – coffee, clinical antiseptic (TCP), marzipan and perfume allows us to slip into the trance Darkfield engineers much easier than something abstract like Flight, even as you can practically see the strings holding the illusion up. Ultimately, the show begins to foreshadow events which will clearly occur in the near future and, when they do, prove to be incredibly strange in an out-of-body-experience sort of way. I wouldn’t exactly call any of this ‘scary’, but it’s definitely haunting: the kind of thing that replays over in your mind as you’re having a shower days later and gives you a glimpse at the pure existential terror lurking beneath our surface reality.
I still feel these Darkfield shows could benefit hugely from A) being stretched out to an hour, and B) containing actual narratives as opposed to trying to evoke a vague sense of unease. As much as I enjoyed COMA, I’m unable to get past the feeling that its ultimately quite a slight experience. You have the shipping container, the hype, the beautifully done interior design, and all the cool details – smells, tastes, sensations – for what? For a 20/25-minute audio track of a man walking up and down an aisle talking crap at you? Asking you to visualise the space before a swift (admittedly fantastic) climax? It feels a little like everything else was decided and painstakingly crafted, and the audio track was just quickly created at the end to fill the space.
It’s clear, three years later, that the Darkfield format clearly works and is as popular as ever – maybe next year we can see something a bit more expansive – though for now COMA is a reliably effective hit.