Out of Your Mind at Edinburgh Fringe 2019: a waste of time
Out of Your Mind, which I’m reviewing although it only happened once, was a live performance of a radio play, recorded in advance of its broadcast by the BBC in October. We’re told that the play will be an ‘exploration of sound and the supernatural’ and that it will be ‘a bold treat for the ears – not for the faint-hearted’.
Spoiler alert: it’s neither of those things.
Ultimately, I felt the same about Out of Your Mind as I did with the more-elaborate COMA, also playing at Summerhall: so what? There’s a general problem with 30-minute plays, especially ones which aim to be ‘immersive’ or ‘frightening’ – they don’t have the time to actually fully immerse or frighten. And when the whole thing happens through headphones, as opposed to on some sort of a stage, that leads to even more disappointment.
The story – if you can call it that – revolves around three university students descending into tunnels beneath Royal Holloway. One of the students is doing a drama degree, and for her final year project she’s decided to create an ‘underground aural experience’ in some sort of passageway that allegedly links the university to a historic asylum. In the passageway, she intends to read a ghost story that sounds like something straight out of the nearby Edinburgh Dungeon to the audience. Yes, this is really what the play is about. She takes these three friends to test out the experience in advance of the public unveiling of it, but (unsurprisingly) things start going wrong.
When they do, there’s an attempt to draw thematic lines between psychological horror (in the ghost train sense) to mental illness. There is, of course, filmic precedent for this: Polanski turned a crumbling apartment into the haunted contours of his protagonist’s mind with Repulsion, and Jennifer Kent manifested depression as a terrifying boogeyman in The Babadook. But here, I feel, it just doesn’t work. Naomi Sheldon’s play tries to have its cake and eat it, as it expects us to be scared at a story involving an insane asylum, then expects us to shake our heads at that very exploitation – sort of like Funny Games, but if Michael Haneke was a hypocritical sadist instead of a humanist.
Unfortunately, it’s neither scary nor thought-provoking. This is another example of a juvenile project obsessed with its own metaphors which, in the midst of its own navel-gazing, neglects to actually explore any of the ideas it attempts to raise. “MENTAL ILLNESS!”, it shouts, “IS NOT A JUMPSCARE IN YOUR GHOST STORY”. Okay, but, like, can you put some effort into discussing your ideas and making a coherent argument rather than yelling vague concepts into my ears?
Sonically, we appear to listen to the story from a neutral perspective – voices travelling around the binaural headspace – but at several points it wants us to adopt the subjective perspective of the main character. In a short piece, this creates a disconnect and disarray that makes the whole thing kind of confusing. In retrospect, if I was asked whether the binaural audio was necessary, I’d say it wasn’t – it added nothing to the piece other than allowing a ghost to whisper ‘run’ in our ears at one point – something that didn’t so much elicit a jump as a sigh. It’s like the world’s crappest ghost train, where you can see the strings holding the cardboard skeletons in the air.
It’s a very student-y piece of work – not just because it stars students in a plot about a university final product, but because it’s woefully over-ambitious and under-delivers at nearly every opportunity. Hey, lets make it horror! Hey, lets make it about mental health! Isn’t it clever to combine the two despite the fact that we’ve seen it several times before in the last decade, such that there’s no real originality left in this piece at all? Hey, lets make it about the appropriation of others’ stories by artists! Hey, lets include asylums, and universities, and hidden tunnels, and sound installations, and degree pieces, and secret rooms, and ghosts, and it can be binaural and…. And….. and….. Out of Your Mind is 30 minutes long, and packs in so much random crap that it ends up feeling completely empty. Anybody remotely in tune with modern discourse over mental health, or modern horror, will find this all very dull.
Still, maybe the listeners of BBC Radio 3 might find it ‘interesting’. Even then, I suspect it’ll remain completely forgettable.