14th August 2018
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Play about ancient China staged in old fish tank

Audiences at Shetland Youth Theatre’s production of More Light last week were taken through a truly memorable and awe-inspiring experience.

But true to the old maxim of suffering for art, the company and the audience didn’t have things easy. Instead of a comfy theatre setting, this production was staged inside the old fish tank situated in the former shore station at the Ness of Sound.

It’s a desolate and wild place. One prayed for the elements not to be too unforgiving and faced with the prospect of 90 minutes standing, I used my advancing years as an excuse to take one of the chairs provided for those with particular needs (“Dickey knees and an irregular heart, guv”). Even so, the experience of this play was a bit of an ordeal, but one that was well worth the making.

Set in the tomb of the first emperor of China, the dictatorial Qin Shi Huang, despot and book-burner, Bryony Lavery’s play concentrates its attention on the concubines buried alive in the tomb to accompany their master on his final journey through death’s gates.

Much has been made of the 8,000 strong terracotta army buried with Qin Shi Huang, but the greater human tragedy of the megalomania surrounding his death were the architects, the artisans, the scholars, the workmen and the hundreds of his concubines who were buried alive when his tomb was sealed.

Because the play is set in a tomb, the company wanted to perform in a venue that embraced the audience in the alien surroundings.

Director John Haswell said before the show: “It would have been too easy to perform at the Garrison, but this old fish tank is hugely exciting. It is a massive space with a fascinating acoustic … There is a sense of the audience being voyeurs as they witness the women’s situation, and also of being archaeologists looking into the past.”

More Light has been described as a “cannibalism comedy”, though the comedy aspects in this production are not over-emphasised, but are part of a delicate, stylised and visually stunning production. The macabre play is indeed the story of how the emperor’s concubines were buried alive in his elaborate tomb and how they decide to prolong their lives by eating the corpse of their late lord and master.

Once his plump carcase has been stripped of fresh meat, the women – under the leadership of the resourceful More Light (played by Erin Murdoch) – go in search of more food. Fortunately for them, the emperor’s decision to entomb the men who designed and made his last resting place has ensured an ample supply of human protein.

Murder and cannibalism become part of everyday life in this bizarrely entombed world. For the first time in their brief lives as glorified sex slaves, yet as a direct result of their strange predicament, the concubines are free to create works of art that truly astound the archaeologists who in latter days discover the tomb.

The narrative of this complex play is compelling and memorable and the 30-strong young cast tackled this difficult material with impressive self-confidence that belied their years.

The opening tableau set in the entrance way to the tomb was stunning, not just for the sheer beauty of its presentation, but for the concentration these young actors gave to holding their perfect poses for such a long period of time.

When they eventually move off into the play proper, to the delicate Chinese sounds created by Philip Taylor (that would help keep us enthralled for the rest of the evening), it was as if china dolls had been brought to life. Erin Murdoch brought a most powerful presence as More Light, using the excellent acoustics to give her voice a particular power.

The whole cast followed her excellent lead. As in the play, so in life. Some characters were a little quiet and difficult for us audience, also in strange surroundings, to engage with. But the acting was generally of the highest standing, with a concentration and deliberation that invariable created the most stunning visual imagery. Even when some poor souls had to lie still for long periods of time, they did so with a commendable grace and dedication.

This was a voyeur experience, but one that lingered in the mind long after leaving the performance space. And, indeed, for days following. It was a bit gruelling for the audience, as it must also have been for the actors. But that was part of the shared experience, the bit where audience and actors become one in the action of the play.

The simple and stylised aspects of the production, the origami birds, the stick-men emperor, soldiers and artisans, the scribing in the sand floor, the choreography, the matching costumes, all left a memorable mark on those who saw this play. Well done, Shetland Youth Theatre, for having the guts to perform this beautiful, unusual and sensitive piece of theatre in such an inspired setting.

Jeff Merrifield