It was clear from the beginning that The Project was going to be a disconcerting piece of theatre. Produced by members of the Nottingham New Theatre ahead of their stint at next month’s Edinburgh Fringe, this dystopian nightmare pushes the boundaries of conventional theatre and subverts the idea that we can sink back in the darkness and let it all wash over us.
As I took my seat I noticed that the cast members were sitting amongst us writing notes. A woman who resembled a mannequin stared straight ahead of us in the middle of the stage. She was wearing a jaundiced-yellow lipstick and it soon emerged that she was the subject of some kind of bizarre, quasi-medical experiment. The director – played by an actor – addressed the audience directly, telling us that the play would depend on our reactions to it. At various points the performance is deconstructed, forcing us to challenge our preconceptions of what a piece of theatre should be.
The experiment itself was extremely sinister. The woman is forced to do things against her will as the other characters continue on their quest to ‘cure’ her. Meanwhile, the director looks on, taking a perverse pleasure in his experiment, blind to the fact that he may be hurting someone in the name of art.
In many ways, The Project reminded me of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, an allegorical play which shows how people’s passivity allowed Hitler to rise to power. Like Brecht’s masterpiece, The Project makes good use of Verfremdungseffekt – or alienation technique – to remind the audience that like all art theatre is artificially conceived. By not getting too comfortable, we are able to consider some of the ethical challenges a performance can pose.
Overall, this was a fascinating piece of physical theatre and the actors made good use of the performance space. The dialogue was elegant and the narrative purposefully draws the audience in before reminding them that this was indeed a performance rather than real-life. A bold experiment – and one which paid off.
You can see The Project at Zoo Monkey House at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.