by Clare Duffy, Jon Spooner and Chris Thorpe
at Northern Stage, Friday 11th October 2013
Unlimited Theatre’s The Noise makes a good companion piece to Fine Chisel’s Dumbstruck. Well, I say “makes a good companion piece”, but what I really mean is “ends up doing pretty much exactly the same things as”. Extraordinarily, the two companies have hit on pretty much exactly the same ideas about sound, control and the human spirit without (as far as I’m aware) ever crossing paths during the making process. Sure, the shows have slightly different aesthetics and tell their stories in different ways, but ultimately but Unlimited and Fine Chisel delve into similar territory. Both pieces are set in a remote location, consider the relationship between sound and space, place underwater sounds at the heart of their narratives and seek to open up discussion about how we ‘hear’ the world.
Directed by Jon Spooner, The Noise is a multi-authored “sci-conspiracy thriller” set on the Island of Whitley, not far from Antarctica. Its inhabitants live sheltered, calm lives, but are constantly subjected to “the Noise”, which affects different individuals on different levels. As we join this community, a giant iceberg has found its way into the nearby ocean, frightening the population and increasing fear about those strange noises. The young Charlie (an energetic Rachel Gay) meets with her scientist friend Harry (played with a slimy vindictiveness by Jerry Killick) to try and uncover the meaning behind this mystery, thus allowing a thriller to unravel, tiny in scale but massive in ambition.
Written by Spooner with Clare Duffy and Chris Thorpe, The Noise bizarrely contains a singular voice but a multiplicity of outcomes and meanings, revealing itself to be a piece about community by the time the sharp closing monologue comes around. Rhys Jarman’s design abstractly evokes island and iceberg, suspending the latter in the air and rooting the former firmly to the ground; one is solid, the other looks flimsy. Scientific, mathematical angles work their way into the aesthetic, so that the final few reveals are sown to have been present but invisible throughout. Spooner’s cast opt for a style which verges on melodramatic, which gives the show pace but slips into sentimentality a little too often, and the suspense sometimes runs the risk of getting lost behind exposition.
According to their (digital) programme, the company intended “to make a show that places sound and music right at the heart of the show” which undoubtedly comes across; Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin’s sound design (with David Edwards’ composition) is strewn throughout the piece, revealing itself in multiple layers and remaining perpetually present. I wonder, however, how much it feeds into the actual story being told, for to my (relatively untrained) ears, the sound and music seems to feed into and enhance the action, rather than being positioned at its heart. Perhaps this says something about our modern theatregoing sensibilities, which constantly look for plot and meaning above trying to tune in to other aspects of production, but the foregrounding of spoken, linear narrative in The Noise seems to somewhat undermine its intentions.
On that note, I wonder whether Unlimited Theatre’s advertised aim is possible at all in contemporary theatre. Though Spooner’s desire to place sound and music at the heart of the show is a noble one, the dominant form of British theatre is at present, and has always been, aural (I swear if I hear another person tell me that Shakespeare’s audience went to “hear” a play rather than “see” it, I cannot be responsible for my actions). Audiences are used to giving precedence to hearing over seeing, meaning that Unlimited’s mission statement for the piece falls short of being radical (though, interestingly, Katharine Williams’ lighting remains consistently shifting and mystifying throughout). Recent productions with similar intentions – The Hush and Ring come to mind – seem to have suffered from a similar problem, failing to truly utilise and open up their chosen form.
What we do, get, however, is an exercise in – and a rumination of – the nature of control. The inhabitants of Whitley, for example, are demonstrated to be far less in control of their faculties than they believe themselves to be; they are parts of a whole, hidden within a bigger entity. This idea of being muffled by something larger runs throughout, with vinyl records being useless without a specific machine and the island itself harbouring secrets of its own.
To an extent, it feels like the voices of Spooner, Duffy and Thorpe are similarly hidden, lodged within the larger picture. On the one hand, this means we get a plethora of voices and characters, all clamouring for space and uniquely nuanced, but I also wonder whether this is the reason for the show’s lack of humour; there are plenty of jokes, but many of them fail to land. The Noise, like the island on which it is set, often lacks stability, shyly trying to cover its seams where it should have flaunted them for all its got. In the moments when we are allowed to see its workings out, however, the production finds a strange energy and hints towards a practice of working where abstract noise takes on as much meaning as spoken text.