Never Ending Night, a post-apocalyptic immersive experience, leaves Robert Reid pondering his role as an audience member
Never Ending Night is an immersive theatre piece written by Amelia Newman, Bridget Burton and Keith Gow and directed by Renee Palmer. Its post-apocalyptic setting sees a loose community of survivors dealing with the arrival of refugees from another community.
The Collingwood underground carpark is a magical space. Never not remaining steadfastly what it is – a carpark – I’ve seen it become many different landscapes, each as impressively constructed as the next. The aesthetic of the carpark is hard to overcome. It has its own personality. You can augment that personality or play against it, but there is no erasing or denying it.
Never Ending Night augments it. The design of the space is simple and effective with curtains of diaphanous plastic that hang everywhere, dividing the space into performance area and bar. Dividing the performance area into smaller zones, residential areas marked off with white snake lighting, more curtains and a scattering of personal effects.
The space echoes. It’s all concrete, pillars and hard reflective surfaces. Light is absorbed by the dull grey walls, plunging much of the design into evocative shadow and blending worlds sketched out of props into worlds sketched in by imagination, but the same material bounces sound around the whole space. Every conversation becomes one conversation, amplifying sounds, signs, footfalls, murmurs, that contribute to a brown-noise soundscape that makes hearing dialogue almost impossible.
We are given surgical masks on entry and told that we should don them when the play begins. We’ll know when the play begins, we’re told, though we’re given no indication of how we‘ll know. I mean, we all know the signs to look for – actors entering a previously calm space, taking attention with shouting information and giving orders, or a lighting shift that will suggest we follow our curiosity towards the action.
It is the latter here. We audience mingle around the area designated as a foyer. Most are engrossed in their own conversations when the voice begins to issue from the speaker, telling us numbers of survivors elsewhere, sharing news of their community’s misfortunes, counting out the days since…. What?
Some kind of disaster has befallen humanity and driven us underground into pods. Small communities wait together for the return. Although it is still projected to take 30 years, food and other supplies have been rationed to last through those projections.
Through the curtains come the residents of this pod. They play a game of blindfold tag. Whoever is tagged becomes leader for the day. They all wear distinctive brown jackets. The audience is distinguished by our surgical masks, which the last of us are now pulling on as it becomes apparent that the show is starting. The drama begins with the entry (actors shouting loud commands) of radiation-suited authorities to inform the people in this pod that new additions to the community are coming. Another pod has suffered a catastrophe and their survivors are being spread out among the remaining pods.
We’re instructed at the beginning to feel free to explore the space as we wish. With the new arrivals, the bulk of the pod people move back into their main living space behind the curtains. Our instinct is to follow them, as they take most of the energy of the room with them as they go, but we are stopped by three authority figures in radiation suits. I find it hard to hear much of what they say, their voices echo and make what they say indistinct. I’m also distracted by our role in all this.
As with so much immersive work lately, I’ve no idea what my role is. The mask implies I’m part of this reality, and groups me together with a bunch of other silent wandering and watching people who are likewise masked. Are we a separate community within the pod? A lower caste? No one addresses us. No one acknowledges us. The residents go about their business. They share distinct living areas, marked out by the rope lights and rags and stuff, but there are other spaces too. A set of seats against a wall in a blue floor light: an exercise bike area, a tiny horticultural section, less a garden and more some plants and some pipes in a box. I’m not clear what some of these spaces are. They give the impression of being set up by the residents as other places to be, other micro-environments within the one shared underground pod.
That echo, though.
I catch only fragments of conversation. Everything, all the scenes, all the moments are taking place in real time at the same time. The din is everywhere, inescapable. I think if I had to live for 30 years against the background of this noise I would willing walk out into the apocalypse as soon as I could slip away. I hear scraps of their stories and catch glimpses of the histories and mythologies.
Over the hour underground with them we float through the relationships of these Acacian pod dwellers. We get a sense of who is sleeping with whom, who is cheating. Who is old and tired and drifting away from the others towards, the dark. Who is young and head-strong and longing for a new world. Common problems. Common desires. Absent the sci fi setting, Never Ending Night is thinly-veiled refugee drama that had much of its detail erased by noise.
After wandering aimlessly through the space trying to catch enough of a story to become engaged enough to follow it around the room (which seems to be the mode of engagement on offer in Never Ending Night), I opted instead to sit on one of the chairs that are arranged in a circle roughly in the middle of the space. From here I could see pretty much everything. People argue, their silhouettes dance and clash, they storm past me and each other, consumed by their narratives.
The layering of events on top of each other, offering me the agency to choose the order of events I see, is a fine approach to immersion; but attention must also be given to the simple practicalities of staging in a found space. Whispers travel in a place like the carpark. Small movements stand out amongst stillness. The demands of the carpark are more theatrical and technical, not less. More than this, when free agency is extended to a participating audience, we need guidelines and instructions, otherwise we wander around, wanting to turn the interactions back into theatre.
There is much to like in Never Ending Night. There are interesting ideas being explored and nuanced performances. I think. Some of the dialogue I heard had the repetitive quality of some improvisation, but the depth of characterisation and world building on display mitigates it to some extent. I think.
But there’s a lot that might be me filling in the gaps, because I could hear enough and wasn’t drawn to anything enough to want to follow any story. When all the other stories finally go quiet and expose a conversation about who should be in charge of this pod, it stands out and has our full focus. We all gather, circling from all over the room. We hear the words spoken, we hear their gravity. I’m not sure we know exactly what it was all about, but much of it is generic enough for us to follow along with some guesswork.
A vote is called for. The pod people of Acacia Pod decide the fate of these others.
I wont spoil what they decide. It’s possible, I suppose, that they may decide differently depending on progress of the evening. There’s nothing in the experience that makes me think that this might be the case, but it would be an interesting possibility.
In a racket-filled vacuum, the one recognisable plot development rings clear like a bell at the end of the hour. It’s curiously affecting and numbing at the same time. I feel for these people, but at the same time I don’t feel for them.
Never Ending Night, written by Amelia Newman, Bridget Burton and Keith Gow and directed by Renee Palmer. At the Collingwood Underground Carpark. Melbourne Fringe until September 29. Bookings https://melbournefringe.com.au/event/never-ending-night/
Contains moderate coarse language, adult themes (violence, staged violence)
Collingwood Underground Carpark is partially accessible