A criticism levelled at theatre in Wales is that it often gets quite stagnant, and there’s merit in that. There’s no disputing that high quality work is constantly being made across the country, but the work does sometimes feel derivative of, or tonally similar to, other pieces made at the same time. Nobody is going to level that criticism at Robinson: The Other Island.
Placing itself somewhere between performance art and radio play, Give It A Name Theatre’s show is less a piece of theatre and more a sensory experiment. With headphones on, the audience is plunged deep into this surreal world-within-a-world. In ‘our’ world Bianca tries to escape from the solitude of her own life by immersing herself in Daniel Defoe’s classic Robinson Crusoe. As she reads passages from the novel, the fictional world comes to life around her and we see the eponymous hero try to survive on a deserted island. Before long, the lines between reality and fantasy no longer exist.
The stand-out facet of Robinson: The Other Island is undoubtedly its binaural sound. In using this innovative and exciting technology, artistic director John Norton and Jack Drewry are able to manipulate the ambience of the piece before a single word is ever uttered. The ‘surround-sound’ really helps put the audience into the shoes of the characters, the sort of experience you’d get from listening to a particularly good audiobook. Unfortunately, the visual experience never quite matches the aural one. Mathilde Lopez is a director known for making experimental theatre like this (and making it well), but she’s unable to repeat her previous successes.
More than anything, she’s the victim of a production that’s heavy on design and light on narrative. The focus is on offering an excellent technological experience, and so the story doesn’t get the nuance it needs to make a visceral impact. There are some great moments, of course. At times, Angharad Evans’ dingy lighting is stunning to look at, while John Rowley makes an excellent Crusoe, tapping into the humour and the pathos of the character. The physicality of his performance is also worth admiring, a convenient juxtaposition to Luciana Trapman’s superb vocal performance as Bianca. She recites Defoe’s words delightfully but, again, she’s a victim to the narrative. We’re given an insight into Bianca’s isolation through conversations with an absent father, but we just don’t see enough to truly sympathise. Ultimately, what is supposed to be an integral part of the narrative ends up feeling like a comic subplot.
Two-thirds of the way through, the production turns political and a statement is made about the novel’s attitudes to colonialism and race. Though valid points to make their inclusion feels forced, mirroring the production’s overall struggle. Much of its individual components feel shoe-horned in, and only the sound design really stands out. Experiencing that binaural sound is a lot of fun and it’s clear that there’s a lot more that could be done with the technology. Perhaps this is the pioneering production in a new technology-led era in Welsh theatre – perhaps not – but the possibilities are certainly exciting. It goes to show that, simply by taking a risk, a decent piece of theatre can leave an indelible footprint.
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