Performed in almost total darkness, Cathedral is an interesting but ultimately frustrating piece of experimental theatre. Two performers, who never speak, occupy the blackened stage; we know they’re there, but we often can’t see them. From time to time, a handheld light flares, or a scene’s illuminated with a dim and hazy glow. Coupled with these scattered images, a story of sorts is played over the speakers, with occasional sound effects and snatches of music too.
There are some subtle, identifiable links between the visual vignettes and the narrative. We hear of a trip to a beach, and also of time spent looking at the mirror in a bathroom; and so, one dimly-lit scene features a character “washing” under a shower of sand. That image, like several others, is striking and attractive, and does form a kind of resonance with the spoken words.
Much of what we see, though, is inscrutable; these are some lengthy, slow-motion movement sequences which it’s hard to link to any detail of the plot. There are also extended passages when the stage is in complete darkness, in a way which feels more like a failure of imagination than a choice to throw focus on the soundscape.
The spoken story is told in an equally fragmentary style – to the extent, perhaps, that it doesn’t count as a conventional story at all. Leaning heavily on verbal imagery, it highlights specific moments in one or more relationships, viewed both from within and from the outside. According to the programme blurb it’s based on Raymond Carver’s famed short story of the same name, but it’s an extremely loose adaptation which retains little of the original plot.
At its best, the combination of words and images is intriguingly mysterious, and the performance almost – almost – carried me along. But the bizarre final gambit, which left the audience thoroughly confused about whether the show was actually over, was enough to break the spell for me. I had time to take a closer look at the Emperor’s New Clothes, and I found them rather wanting.
Cathedral must be a challenging piece to perform – and on the day I attended, the execution appeared faultless. There’s some well-developed imagery, and the use of hand-held lights is creative too. Sadly though, for me at least, it was as ephemeral and insubstantial as leaves blowing in the wind: never rooted in anything specific, and never quite building towards a meaningful or comprehensible whole.