It is quite rare these days to find theatre without the spoken word. Theatre has become quite formulaic in its need for chanting exposition through song and soliloquy, and as such, always attempts to excavate the human condition through the very typical and often predictable interactions. But maybe there is more depth in exploring that interaction without the human voice, without the “human”; maybe the best teller of the tale is not the voice of the human, but the voice of their creation.

An hour-long theatrical exhibition of music and media, While You Sleep unites a string quartet and pianist with short films and animations in an aural and visual amalgamation. Produced by Claire Bortek of the Bureau of Works, While You Sleep: a fugue explores the psychological ‘fugue state’ – a reversible dissociative disorder where one experiences short-term amnesia – through the literal use of musical fugue amongst our onstage performers and their supporting each other’s take on the narrative. Creatively directed by Sal Cooper (also the devisor) and Kate Neal (also the musical director), this dexterous duo presents a surrealist interpretation of reconnecting the thoughts of a lost mind by meshing their different skills together in a counterpoint of sound, image and movement.

Although the stage was near bare, the set consisted of an arrangement of oddities and curiosities to unfold. Four music stand in a distant corner, looming like spindly towers under a dim light; a small train set lingering at the back of the stage, the circular track a base to the train whose window lights shine ominously like eyes in the night; four wheeled chairs stagnant in a scatter upon the stage, each their own unsettling entity; three white screens varying in size from the next, hovering in the air above our performers and becoming the portals for our multimedia voyage; the skeleton of a window frame hanging to our right, wanting to show us beyond but mysterious in what world stands on either side; an old television set beside an armchair, becoming the vignette of a media-consuming lounge room in a picket-fence household; and upright pianos, everywhere. A very interesting set, as each moment seemed only momentary at best, seemingly going to take us somewhere but never really knowing where that ‘where’ was. With the generated confusion of each setting, the themes of our show were constant, and the amnesia of the fugue state was experienced by the audience as they were taken on the expedition of putting the vague pieces back together again.

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With consistently gestural and rhythmic motions comprising most of the direction, it would be more fitting to call director Daniel Schlusser a choreographer in his own right. To complement the melodic movements of our performers’ plucking and sweeping across their instruments, the direction had them exaggerating their playing; starting each segment with one instrument and movement, the others replicated the former in canon, readdressing the theme and pattern of the fugue and its formula. With very simple turns and physical motifs being the foundation of the movement, our directors managed to construe beautifully synced routines for our performers to cycle through, and more often than not while sitting down. This gentle graceful flow of movement was often mesmerising to watch, and highlighted the contour of the musical fugue as it wafted melodically across the room. Complementing this was the lighting and its scope of access, spotlighting certain vignettes powerfully or having a central wash as a battleground for our Spartans of music. However, our performers were sometimes lost to the black, with some lighting choices so dim that our eyes strained to find a focus point or to find focus in general. While arguably another side of the fugue state and its falling into the void of a lost mind, and whilst luckily only in sparse and brief segments, these dark hazes momentarily detracted from the effectiveness of the piece and the visuals of the images onstage.

This show is carried by its incredibly nuanced musical score. Composed by creative director Kate Neal, the music often became an underscore for the happenings on the screen, and – with the precision of a smart composer – was able to match the beats up with the film’s actions smoothly and impeccably. Like electricity, pianist Jacob Abela flickers and flutters across the keys of the three separate pianos throughout the show as if possessed by a musical demon, expertly carrying the mould for our quartet. But what would be of this score without the incredible quartet themselves? Zachary Johnston, Isabel Hede, Phoebe Green and Katherine Philp are both individually and collectively awe-inspiring in their finesse of music production and manipulation, especially when given the prime mission of supporting one another; given the virtuosity of each piece and the aptitude of our players, it is more than a feat to blend sound so wholesomely and without falter. With moments where the strings were scratched, whining and dissonant, our masterful musicians made it sound as if it were a chorus of crying voices themselves, recollecting memories and calling for things lost. It is hard to find such music that makes your hairs stand on end. Audio can often be the make-or-break of a show, even a great show, so we can all sigh with relief under the tight proficiency of audio designer Robert Downie. With clean sound cues and balanced levels, Downie’s maintenance of the audio is the glue of the show, keeping the sound optimal throughout its duration.

With the screen-based media done by creative designer Sal Cooper, there were multiple forms of art presented on our screens from stop-motion to hand-drawn animations. Short silent films on lost notions, a sketch being drawn and then disassembled again, horses falling in slow-motion and birds flying then dramatically nose-diving, our niche films all opened the window on themes of flight, escape, memory and dissociation as symptoms of our fugue state. While bamboozling with absurdist images like hallucinations, Cooper’s films contrasted themselves with some very charming and subtly powerful moments, all the while still blurring the lines on what is real and what is false. With systems designer Bosco Shaw on the job, Cooper’s images had their own direction in their lens adjustment, sometimes splaying the back wall and other times being contained within one of the hovering screens. The inimitable precision of matching our on-stage with our on-screen deserves its own applause as never a beat seemed to be skipped, the films becoming music in their own right as they followed the rhythmic pulse like they themselves were being conducted.

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With the same dark hypnosis of a tarot tent, While You Sleep: a fugue braves the caves of deep psychology without ever straying from its jagged path. In a deft excavation of the bones of identity and the heart of grief, this production melds our reality with our illusory in the gentle ebb and flow of sound and cycle, imprinting the idea that our everyday is lost to us in its routine and in our own repeated patterns of behaviour, and the uncertainty that ensues “while we sleep” – when our very thoughts, minds and selves escape us.

Images: Bryony Jackson