SHINE at Edinburgh Fringe 2019: spectacular immersive triumph
There is a point maybe 40 minutes through SHINE where I decide to take stock of my surroundings. The room is small – a barely camouflaged box in Zoo Southside’s converted church. The set design is sparse – there’s a table with a typewriter, a glass of water, and a doll in the centre of the space; a stool with a radio on it to the left. The unforgiving plastic of the cheap chair I’m sitting on hurts my back, and light leaks onto the stage from poorly sealed windows and doors. And yet – and yet – it feels like I’m watching a high-spec, cutting-edge blockbuster of the highest order.
When we’re ushered into this wondrous show, directed and performed by Olivier Leclair and Tiia-Mari Mäkinen, we’re requested to don a pair of nice-looking headphones hanging on our seats. The audio of SHINE is entirely delivered through these headphones whilst the action plays out on the stage in front of us.
The show is a piece of physical theatre. Young parents Max (Leclair) and Kate’s (Mäkinen) daughter goes missing one night during a storm, and Max especially struggles to cope with the loss. We bear witness as the audience to his breakdown and attempts to understand what has happened to him – both the fate of his daughter and coming to terms with her absence in his life. If I was American, I might say he was searching for ‘closure’.
The pair engage in a dance that’s half-way towards a fight; over the course of the hour, their physicality treads the fine line between love and hate – adoration and violence. Kate is also a therapist and starts trying to treat Max herself – sort of like Von Trier’s Antichrist, but with (you’ll be glad to hear) far-less alarming results. Still, the situation is lacking the degree of separation needed for either party to be fully comfortable – Max begins to wonder whether his wife truly has his best interests at heart after all…
There’s a catch, though: thanks to Dave Carey’s magnificent sound design, we’re experiencing everything from his perspective.
In theatre, unlike film, we’re so used to seeing work from a neutral standpoint – pieces tend to flatter the audience by granting them the analytical, judgemental perspective of a non-biased observer. SHINE’s audio games allow the show to be almost fully subjective, even though there are multiple actors and perspectives on the stage in front of us. We are watching Max, but we also experience the world through his perspective and have no choice but to adopt that as our perspective. You could probably resist – but then what would be the point?
The performance feels remarkably intimate and personal, even though the surrounding crowd is listening to and hearing exactly the same thing as you are. As Max descends further and further into a web of paranoia and drug-addled stupor, we can’t help but be dragged down with him. If he is confused and can’t actually work out what the hell is going on, then neither can we. There is no opportunity afforded to distance – although of course we can use our own rational capacities to question the reliability of the narrative we’ve been forced to inhabit.
The all-consuming physicality of the piece, performed in such an enclosed space right in front of the audience, combined with the immersive audio experience, is absolutely magical – thrilling and in-your-face without feeling brash or un-nuanced. I was reminded, several times, of watching a film – with that format’s audio-visual perfection superimposed onto a theatre setting.
Most impressively, though, is the way the sound syncs up precisely with the physical theatre. I can’t imagine the amount of rehearsal and practice required to get the timing exactly right (even with the audio track presumably playing in the room as well as through the headphones) but I can tell you the effort has been absolutely worth it. At times, the effect is so strong that my brain was struggling to comprehend what it was seeing and hearing in rational terms: as Max writes on an imaginary chalkboard through the air, the noise of chalk on hard surface perfectly lines up with his hand movements. It’s a spine-tingling moment that counts as nothing less than perfection.
Andrew Caddies’ phenomenal lighting design also does wonders for the piece – taking us from day to night, bad dreams, forests and seas effortlessly. In a handful of spectacular scenes, Mäkinen dons a terrifying mask and clothing on the reverse of her body and lurches around the stage, taunting Max as strobe lights illuminate things in otherworldly, dangerous hues. There’s definitely room for a full-on horror show using this sort of technology.
Having headphones in your show seems to be somewhat of a trend at the moment – even the National were at it with this year’s ANNA – and there’s definitely the risk that it can be a gimmick (Darkfield’s work can come perilously close to kitsch). SHINE demonstrates what can happen when the technology is comfortably nestled in the very essence of the project. It’s affecting and bold, spectacularly grand but quiet and intimate, subjective but with room for a more objective stance. Most importantly, it’s a display of extreme skill – physical prowess, immaculate timing, and perfect execution in an environment where there’s no room for error. If you’re looking for a more-serious show – a break from the neverending stand-up – that balances some Fringe innovation with real thrills, I can’t think of a better place to be.