Into the Uncanny Valley

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

Written by Jean Betts
Directed by Charlie Bleakley
BATS Theatre | November 3-17

The STAB Season has always encouraged grand scales; it provides theatre companies with the opportunity to realise huge, spectacular theatrical experiences that would otherwise be financially unviable. Into the Uncanny Valley takes scale to the extreme. It starts with a big bang, and then proceeds to realise the universe on stage. After a spectacular opening sequence, the play divides into two threads. On a large scale the play is an exploration of our universe and the basics of quantum physics. On a smaller scale, it’s the story of a young Victorian girl and her cat exploring the world of science.

The most successful thread sees the evolution of our understanding of quantum physics rendered theatrically. It strives to locate the poetry of science. Metaphors and maxims abound: everyone is made of star dust; even something is made up of nothing; imagination is more important than knowledge; we must search for the simple, most elegant solution. These phrases are supported with grand theatrical images. From the big bang at the top of the play, the range of theatrical tricks are inventive and, often, surprising. In a pitch black theatre, a single dot of light flies through across the stage and into the audience. Stars and stock footage of nature are projected onto large curtains. Storms of foam and bubbles, fragments of cloth and laser lights fill the theatre. Scale and depth are well utilized as these inanimate objects are given life on stage. All in all, this production is very successful in finding simple ways of putting the universe onto the BATS stage.

The second thread works on a much smaller scale, and tries to use humour and parable to compensate. The thread follows a pretty nauseating Victorian family. Pitched somewhere between children’s science show and a didactic lecture or documentary, caricatures of physicists and theorists dramatize scientific debate. Meanwhile, Sophie (Jennifer Martin) and her small cat are in a state of constant, exaggerated wonderment as they embark on a surreal Alice in Wonderland-style adventure through the world of quantum physics. Along the way, the cat enters Schrödinger’s Box and disappears. Sophie spends the remainder of the play searching the world of science for her cat. The narrative is overwritten, and the theatrical tricks that facilitate Sophie’s journey seem clumsy in comparison to the abstracted images of physics and the universe. Dressed in full black leotards, the company awkwardly holds Sophie up as she flies through the universe. Her cat, initially a soft toy, then another actor in leotards wearing a cheap looking mask and a tied-on tail, seems puerile, and detracts from the genuine integrity that underpins the scientific investigation.

The central message, that physics is as much a creative pursuit as a clinical science, is clearly conveyed. Into the Uncanny Valley gives every audience member something fresh to ponder about the concepts of physics, the assumptions humans have made and continue to make, and the threshold of human understanding. There are some spectacular moments in this production, and if it could just shake the reliance on narrative, the audience could join Sophie ‘down the rabbit hole’.

Filed under: ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

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Samuel Phillips is the Wellington theatre editor for The Lumière Reader. When he isn’t reviewing theatre he can be found making theatre with Wellington-based company, Bright Orange Walls, or studying at Victoria University of Wellington.