Edinburgh Festival's ‘Leaving Planet Earth' And ‘Long Distance Affair' (REVIEWS): Skype Liasons And Galactic Migration

Steamy Skype Affairs And Galactic Mass Migration: Edinburgh Redefines The Stage

A stage, an audience and a performance – the simplicity of traditional theatre is changing, according to Christopher Baugh, Professor of Theatre at Hull University.

Speaking at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, the Professor explored the evolution of theatre in his lecture Devices of Wonder.

An actor on stage is becoming just a limited aspect of a much wider range of performance, Baugh says, with technology increasingly revolutionising theatre.

Technology on stage has been wowing audiences for centuries, from the lamp projection of ghosts on to smoke in Phantasmagoria in Paris in 1797, to present day achievements using light, sound and pyrotechnics at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics and other outdoor art events of the Cultural Olympiad.

Baugh was certainly presenting his theories of theatrical revolution in the right city; in the spirit of pushing the boundaries of performance, two productions in Edinburgh showcased alternative theatrical devices.

Long Distance Affair, part of the Fringe Festival, used Skype, the video messaging service, in a personalised one-to-one performance in which each audience members are treated to their own actor and narrative, giving an intimate and often unsettling theatrical experience.

Leaving Planet Earth from Grid Iron, part of the International Festival, transported its audience to a new planet to start a fresh new life, free of baggage from our ruined and polluted earth. The production was an immersive experience featuring mixed media, guiding patrons through a mass migration process across the universe, giving a perspective on the relationship between humanity and earth.

Did Edinburgh boldly go where no theatre productions have gone before? Read our reviews below.

Leaving Planet Earth, Grid Iron, Edinburgh International Festival

Two and a half years in the making, the imaginative inventions of Leaving Planet Earth create a dystopic vision as authentic as any novel or film. But this production is not all about science fiction fun, there is a deeper message running throughout.

As you arrive at Edinburgh International Conference Centre, the start point for the three and a half hour production, you are given your ‘Personal Quantifier Device’ (left); a gadget strapped to your hand with an intermittent pulsing light. Leaving Planet Earth is all about mystery and participation - as you wait to start the show, your hand pulses ominously.

Guided on to coaches, you are told you are about to make the ‘jump’ – a form of instant transportation across galaxies, to arrive at New Earth. Your guide, an actor at the front of the coach, explains in soothing tones that you must take a pledge in which you vow to abandon old earth. You learn of a fable named The Gatekeeper (below), a beautifully told story echoing biblical sentiments, explaining how it is our destiny to desert our blighted earth.

The arrival at New Earth is special indeed; a stunning venue made of glass and steel set around a quarry with natural rock face. The building and landscape become as much a part of the production as the actors. A series of induction presentations and fly-on-the-wall scenes by the show’s cast give us more background about the planet. We meet Vela, the visionary behind this ambitious mass migration (below).

With a willing suspension of disbelief, it is easy to be drawn into this brave new world, carried along by the earnest and optimistic performances.

Leaving Planet Earth makes full use of the venue’s scale, with lights, sound and projections, all intermingled in live action scenes. Aside from the impressive visual effects, Grid Iron’s production is about the psychology of our relationship with earth. Many of us have abused it, taken it for granted, and yet we are lost children without it, even in the presence of a dazzling, seemingly perfect, exotic new planet, it will never compare to our mother planet.

The 'Personal Quantifier Device' creates a compelling nod to recent revelations of GCHQ, with our personal freedoms and right to privacy invaded. The device buzzes and vibrates on our hands when our happiness levels dip below an acceptable point, making us a liability to New Earth society.

An exploration of ‘Old Earth Museum’, a scene within the production, creates a surprisingly emotional response – what if everything you ever knew and loved - every object, landscape, beach, house, smell – became just a memory? What are we without the nourishing land around us?

A balance is not always struck between science fiction adventure and the subtle message about our abusive attitude to earth; some costumes appear to be clichéd 1970s sci-fi; gold leggings, long cloaks and bright face paint. Some scenes are too long and ponderous, as though the writer is concerned that finer details will be lost, over emphasising basic points.

But walking away from the production leaves you with a genuinely refreshed perspective on our environment. Leaving Planet Earth is an original collaborative feat of technology, art and theatre, a show that works as both an immersive piece of entertainment and a successful thought experiment.

Long Distance Affair (make possible an impossible trip), PopUp Theatrics, Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Many of us love Skyping our friends and relatives – a free online video call to a special person brings us all closer together. But what if your Skype date was a stranger - one who take you on a theatrical narrative with limitless possibilities?

Romanian theatre and television director Ana Margineanu brought her production Long Distance Affair (make possible an impossible trip) to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, combining art and technology with over 30 artists from five continents in a virtual adventure.

Sitting in a darkened basement at Edinburgh’s creative hub Summerhall, surrounded by a handful of laptops and desks, Long Distance Affair looks more like a seedy call centre or shady underground Internet Café - a perfect venue for a secretive online rendezvous.

A production assistant checks you’re seated comfortably and mic’d up. They call your first affair.

Think ‘affair’ and ‘online’ and Internet cheating websites come to mind, where users don virtual masks (although as headlines tell us, online anonymity is merely a wishful fantasy). But Margineanu’s affairs are not all of a sensual nature, some are mysterious, secretive and cryptic.

The first of my three online rendezvous is a man on Edinburgh's home turf. He says he remembers me, that we worked together a long time ago. He can’t speak clearly because his wife may hear, but he tells me of an undercover mission. So this is what James Bond feels like? He recalls the drink I used to drink with him, instead of a Vodka Martini, shaken, not stirred, it’s a specific type of brandy.

I go along with the story, but as details emerge through, it is apparent a device needs to be assembled. A bomb? Even in roleplay, the discussion is unnerving.

My next Skype call is with a pretty young woman in the bedroom of her New York apartment. Marina thinks I might be her Persian lover from a previous life. Speaking in riddles she tells me of our desert camel rides. I remind her of the sweet mint tea we would share in the hot sun.

Do I like her red dress, she asks. Disrobing her gown, she puts it on for me. Long Distance Affair is certainly intimate, the production could make some people uncomfortable (the rating is age 16+). An audience member in the same room as me is faced with a supposed inmate of a psychiatric hospital in Russia, rolling around naked on the floor.

My final Skype meeting is with another young woman, Kim from Belgium. She laments and cries over a disastrous relationship we once had, she wonders whether it's possible to rekindle it, and if I still have that dashing blue suit?

There is an envelope in the window frame next to the computer, just for me, to be opened when I have left the performance. I couldn’t possible reveal what was in the envelope – that’s between me and Kim.

Theatre is often comfortable voyeurism - Long Distance Affair rejects this traditional role. You become as much a part of the narrative as the actor, making the experience surprisingly raw and unsettling, as your past life spills into the story, sharing it with a perfect stranger.

Margineanu’s production is dangerous, thrilling and a fascinating piece of psychological theatre. Go into Long Distance Affair willingly enough and the payoff is a satisfying artistic workout.

‘Leaving Planet Earth' And ‘Long Distance Affair', Edinburgh Festival

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