August 15, 2017
Glance quickly at any show titled Heart of Darkness amongst the many posters and flyers of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and you’re probably jumping to the swampy jungles of the Belgian Congo. This Taiwanese Heart of Darkness (噬) by Sun Son Theatre (身聲劇場) does not appear to have any relation to its Conrad namesake. Its heart is rather the abyss of troubled but ultimately unknowable history of the choreographer’s grandmother.
Before the performance starts, the audience is given a piece of paper with translated text on it, a written iteration of the speech choreographer Low Pei-fen (劉佩芬) makes at the beginning of the piece. Both the written and verbal versions of the speech serve as unnecessary plot spoilers, moments where the fourth wall is broken, in what is predominantly a powerfully imagistic and musically resounding work.
As performer in her own creation, Low is a gravitating force in the middle of the stage, surrounded by four incredibly versatile musicians. Her isolation is captivating and demands the audience’s attention, yet it remains irrevocably distant. Fen’s movement is wonderfully slow and precise, with a calm intensity, that when provoked springs into a manic frenzy. Her tattered costume spills into the space, contrasting with the neatly black-clad musicians, who run around the edges, present but not overpowering.
The musicians sketch a cacophony of sounds, ranging from sped up recordings of bustling, crowded environments, to vocally dynamic wails, grunts and shouts. The wonderfully shambolic festival venue (a converted old lecture theatre) is unfortunately not always the best receptacle for such harsh sounds, with the audience’s proximity in the cramped space sometimes resulting in a screeching audio experience.
Low’s journey through her grandmother’s life denies easy narrative closure, but this perhaps reflects the unknowability Low is trying to convey. The images, furthermore, are strong enough as they are. They do not need an obvious timeline plonked onto them. At points Fen is weary and crouched, clutching her back, then defiant, angry and vigorous, before collapsing in tears and then finding some composure, her face covered in make-up by the musicians and decked in ceremonial garb. There is an impressive and surprising roll over a drum that is placed on her back, a pleasing if slightly repetitive agility.
Images, moments and history sweep past her; a flurry of red flags, a ceremonial procession of drums, an enclosed circle of her long, tightly bound hair. A life is lived, both called to ceremony and brushed aside. A beguiling performance.
Heart of Darkness continues at Summerhall to August 27. Click here for details.