9 March 2015
Flatland takes place in an immersive, pitch-black world of sensation and sound built within a disused church in Southwark Park. Collaborators from the fields of robotics, sound design and the arts have worked with Extant’s visually impaired team and researchers from Open University’s Pervasive Media Lab to create a unique audience experience. Review by Stephen Portlock
Given its idiosyncrasy, it’s perhaps surprising to discover that there exist no less than three film versions as well as a sequel to Flatland: A romance of many dimensions.
Extant have though, as far as I know, produced the first theatrical version and even without the novella’s startling originality it might well still be seen as an unusual choice. Charming it may be but readers seem divided about whether Edwin A Abbott was satirising or merely reflecting phallocratic, disablist, class-obsessed Victorian society.
Yet Extant as a company has experimentalism at its heart and so fittingly they do not feel obliged to stay faithful to the tale of a square living in a two dimensional world of geometric forms and of his illicit discovery of an elusive third dimension.
Whereas previous adaptations appear to have been essentially narrative-based, Extant’s Flatland is less a conventional play than a multimedia installation on breaking perceptual conventions.
What that means in practice is that unlike in the source novella, the world of Flatland here is one of total darkness. Groups of four participants wait in a room and the work opens with a crash as a mad scientist cum wizard Elder Square bursts in and breathlessly introduces himself and his goal of integrating the worlds of two and of three dimensions with the help of his audience.
Bedecked in something akin to boiler suits, the latter are led into the world of Flatland and the onus is on them to feel their way around this strange, magical world of elastic ropes, velvety walkways, pipes and e-textiles. In order to help with this they are guided by a haptic navigation device which takes the form of a cubic compass. Curious sounds and voiceovers describe the various facets of Abbott’s world such as the universities, hospitals, the church and the role played by women.
How the audience reacts to this experience may depend on their sensibility. For some, immersion in total darkness may prove too much and participants were given a safety gesture in case they needed to be led out. For me there was more than a whiff of Philip Pullman although the spirit of horror-meister George A Romero was briefly evoked at the end when the tone turned darker.
Nervousness in this alien environment caused me to tread a little too cautiously and to find the compass more endearing than useful, but a couple of participants were slightly shaken up towards the end when the compasses were destroyed.
Two other attendees at other performances told me respectively that they had failed to notice the use of smell and had blocked out the aural, and that they had lost all notion of geographical scale when it came to the environment.
Flatland will not be open to the public until 2018 so at this stage Extant were simply exploring possibilities. At the end of the experience took place a detailed evaluation which will in turn lead to a dissemination event at Theatre Delicatessen on the 29th April.