The thing I love the most about the Fringe is its variety. This year alone I’ve seen prestige theatre, comedy plays, stand-up, game-shows, improv, a horror musical, a movie with concert accompaniment, and now this: Flight.
Outside Summerhall, there’s a white shipping container with ‘F L I G H T’ emblazoned on the outside; illuminated signs with a 70’s-esque font rising above the metal box. Queued up in front of it, we’re given the safety babble: most of the show will be in complete darkness, baggage is to be stored in the overhead lockers, we should sit in our numbered seats. Then we’re given little retro boarding passes with seat numbers on them, and ushered into the container.
Inside, there’s a perfect reconstruction of an airplane cabin – if it weren’t for the ridiculously generous leg-room, we may as well have genuinely been on a plane. As a steward closes the overhead baggage lockers, and we’ve found our seats, we’re prompted to don a pair of super noise-cancelling headphones, fasten our seatbelts, and read the hilariously fucked safety card in the seat pocket. Overhead screens display a glitchy, nonsensical briefing video that flickers in and out of logic, and then we’re plunged into darkness. The air hostess informs us that the Jacuzzi will be ready for use in 30 minutes.
This is real darkness. Not ‘darkness’ in the sense that the lights have gone out – but pure, pitch darkness where we’re unable to see anything. Somewhere on the plane, a man is asked to turn his phone off: the lights come back on, the overhead screens warn that this is our last chance to disembark if we don’t want to continue. Those who weren’t pre-occupied watching a couple of unnerved customers leave might have noticed that something big had changed in the cabin whilst we weren’t able to see. And then it’s dark again – this time for good. Immersed in the sensory environment of a plane – in an aural sense, and in terms of the hydraulics being employed to supply a constant ‘aeroplane vibration’ sensation. We take-off, convincingly – I’m not sure if the ‘cabin’ tilted upwards, but it certainly felt like it did – and climb to cruising altitude before things start properly going wrong. A baby starts crying, then another, then another – suddenly, there are crying babies everywhere. The pilot asks them to be quiet, they go silent. People start talking nonsense – the pilot can’t work out if we’re alive or dead; the stewardess starts whispering in your ear about lucky seats. The plane (perhaps) begins to crash – suddenly, there’s lightning in the cabin and for a brief, spine-tingling second we see that the cabin size appears to have doubled. Some people scream. Darkness again. The sound design begins to warp and fall apart. More crazy shit. Then it’s over.
The idea is relatively simple, but certainly thought-provoking. When we first board the plane, the stewardess asks if the passenger ‘Mr Schrodinger’ could proceed to the cockpit – and Flight uses the well-known (almost always misunderstood, even here) Schrodingers cat thought experiment as a metaphor for air travel in general. We never truly feel safe flying, even those of us who think we’re perfectly okay with planes. Even though I enjoy (and even look forward to) long flights, when turbulence kicks in or the plane drops a little too fast, I still get pretty damn nervous. It’s as if, when we’re in that metal box in the air, we’re neither dead nor alive – nor are we in this place or that – we are nowhere, floating between destinations and sandwiched by mortality. The show also doubles down on the surreal airline ambience and ecosystem that exists on a plane – the trolley service, the stewardesses, and the seatbelt signs. All these things are totally unnatural, just like the idea of human flight – so strange and bizarre, and yet so rarely thought about.
The sound design, it goes without saying, is incredible. The headphones completely cancel any outside noise – but what we hear feels as if there aren’t any headphones at all, as if we’re just sitting there in the cabin as people move and talk around us. There’s a marvellous/absolutely awful bit where a character lingers behind you for 2/3 minutes, quietly breathing just behind your head that unnerved me to no end and, as the show begins to reach its climax, there’s a real panicked sense of danger that’s compounded by the theatrical trickery on show. Towards the end, the whole affair begins to get surprisingly creepy as well – as if it’s not trying to play on our fear so much as creating a new one. In the age of semi-regular plane disappearances/attacks that seem to increasingly make the news, Flight proposes that the experience of flying in the 21st Century is actually rather terrifying. When I walked out of the container into the light, I realised that this was a subject my mind would return to on my upcoming long-haul in just over a week. Thanks Darkfield…. I also realise I’ve made this thing sound like a harrowing journey into the abyss, but it’s frequently hilarious in its unsettling dark comedy – it feels like there’s a lot of Lanthimos in here.
Ultimately, this is a twisted funfair attraction – and it’s pretty much being sold as such at the Summerhall box office – but nevertheless it feels a little short. At just under 30 minutes, including the briefing, getting seated, and then only around 15-20 minutes of actual showtime, I was left wanting more of the experience – but I suppose that’s better than getting bored of it. In particular, for about 10 minutes, very little happens – the take-off sequence is lengthy, then there’s a lot of ‘people moving about the cabin quietly’ before the babies and twisted logic start dragging things into darkness. By the time the lights come up, and we’re instructed to put the headphones back, the experience feels a little slight. Again, this isn’t a particularly biting criticism – it just means that I wanted more of Flight. Maybe, in their future offerings, Darkfield could consider doubling their shows to the standard hour – I’m sure people would be willing to pay more for the luxury.
But for now, this eccentric theatre company appear to have found a wonderful niche at the Fringe, and they’re absolutely killing it. Following on from the success of their shipping container Séance last year, Flight is a disorienting, trippy, nervy experience that takes our subconscious distrust of flying and channels it through a thought-experiment-as-metaphor that transforms it into an all-too-real nightmare. It’s an exploration of a strange, surreal facet of modern human experience that provides some food for thought, whilst also being a wild, immersive thrill ride that’s great value for money (£5 for students) and won’t take up much of your time. I imagine it’s pretty obvious by now, but you certainly won’t be seeing anything else like it at this years Fringe. If you find yourself around Summerhall, or with a little time to spare, I’d highly recommend checking in.