Reviews: Without Sin and An Alternative Helpline for the End of the World (Summerhall)
One will make you feel tall, the other will make you feel small
Summerhall appears to be collecting semi-theatrical experiences the way a magpie collects trinkets. These experiments are often short (under half an hour) and tread the line between what you could call theatre and what you can’t. But they have the potential to be more than just a novelty sideshow: Darkfield have returned year-on-year with their auditory experiences that take place in total darkness inside a shipping container, this year reviving their work Coma, which is in my opinion their best work yet. In a similar vein of locking participants in a small box, Without Sin by art collective Unqualified Design Studio takes place in a custom-built confessional booth. You enter with either a loved one or, even better, a stranger, and open up about your sins, your insecurities, and your secrets in a non-judgemental space.
Or at least, that is how it works in theory. I’m ashamed to say that when my allotted stranger and I left the booth I did not feel moved or unburdened in the way I was meant to. Perhaps this could be attributed to type; I am a critic after all, we are not known for our mushiness. Then again, as I stood outside the booth I wondered which sin I would confess first, which parts of myself to expose, and I assure you I was not short of options. But this is not to say that because it did not affect me it will not affect you; before I went in I saw the strangers who were in before me step out, hug each other with tears in their eyes, and joke about needing a stiff drink after that. The success or failure of this project really is dependent on how good a conversation happens to be; something that requires vulnerability but invariably a little bit of luck as well.
This is as it should be, lest the designers overstep – which they do in the final piece of the experience. Without spoiling it, the participants take part in an exercise in which they reflect on their time together, and produce an insightful, concluding thought on their partner. For a twenty-minute experience it feels rushed and self-congratulatory, calling upon a glib sentimentality I am not sure I am capable of (much to the chagrin of my companion, I suspect).
But even then, I cannot help but value the potential of the work even if my own experience was lacklustre. It is not often we are invited to get in touch with our own emotional complexity, and with the unspoken complexity of the strangers we meet every single day. It is a shame that I did not experience that sense of connection during my time in Without Sin, but in a time when technology has driven us further apart than ever before, isn’t it worth taking a chance to be vulnerable? Three stars.
Photo Credit: Bláthnaid Conroy
An Alternative Helpline for the End of the World
If Without Sin is meant to make us feel revived and connected to the world, then Alternative Helpline is meant to make us feel the opposite: small, alone, and powerless in a big scary world. The performance takes place over a fifteen-minute phone call and, after a series of yes-or-no questions on how you feel about the state of the world and environmental collapse, gives you a piece of advice about how to cope with it.
Since the pandemic the Fringe programme has hosted both in-person works and a dwindling number of online shows – this sits somewhere between the two. It is a live interaction, but it can take place anywhere since you speak through your actual mobile phone. The irony of this is that even though the work is platformed by Summerhall it is actually one of the few places where the performance can’t take place because of the poor phone reception at the venue.
It refreshing to have the liveness of theatre taken to task in such a simple and accessible way, but in practice it falls short of being entertaining or enjoyable. If it was staged in a way that feels out of the ordinary then it would offer us a new and entertaining way to think about its similarities to everyday life, for example if the performance took place in a red phone box as on the poster. On your own mobile, it feels too close to home. Speaking to someone at a call centre is never an enjoyable experience, and it is hard to find enjoyment even in an interactive parody of one. It puts you into the cold, practical mentality of a real call with an energy supplier for example, or worse – NHS 24.
This is partly the point; it is inspired by systems used by the call handlers during the pandemic. There is something important to consider there; how our response to the climate crisis is likely to echo those from the pandemic as it worsens. But in fifteen minutes it fails to be more than its own idea. If you have read the description, hell if you have read my review, you are likely to have gotten everything out of the performance that you will get. The actual advice, in my case a quote from sociologist Antonio Negri, is as thoughtful and inapplicable as you could hope for from a project like this, but like the climate crisis, it all feels like too little, too late. Two stars.
Without Sin and An Alternative Helpline for the End of the World will play at Summerhall until August 27th